To keep the arms race going, the U.S. badly needs tritium, which is abundant in Canada, where there is little use for it. As a good neighbor, should we supply it to Washington?

By Irene Kock, Joy Phillips, and Norman Rubin | 1989-06-01 12:00:00

Energy Probe, an Ontario- based energy-risks watch group, and Ontario Hydro, the producer of tritium, have been at loggerheads for the past five years over a proposed Canada-U.S. tritium deal, which, if concluded, could suck us even further into the nuclear weapons club.

At this writing, the contentious issue remains unresolved. However, the Energy Probe/ Ontario Hydro crossfire has recently taken a dramatic turn, strengthening the deal's opponents.

In 1986, Ontario Hydro claimed that no U.S. scientist shared Energy Probe's views of the proposal. The intended disparagement misfired when such Americans as Rear Admired (ret.) Eugene Carroll and scientists Ted Taylor, Frank Von Hippel, Tom Cochrane, and Gordon Thompson supported Energy Probe, saying that Ontario Hydro's tritium supplies to the U.S. civilian industry would still free American tritium for Washington's nuclear weapons programs. This weakened the credibility of Ontario Hydro on the issue and boosted the anti-deal crusade.

Why oppose the deal? Roughly 95 percent of the world's tritium supply goes into making atomic, hydrogen, and neutron bombs. Most of the remainder (about 200 grams a year) is used for peaceful purposes. Tritium-activated light is being used for signs, while researchers are using it as a radioactive marker. It may be used in fusion reactors in the future. Hence, tritium use confronts Canada with a dangerous decision: Should we help prepare for a nuclear war?

The crux came in early 1984, when Ontario Hydro said it was planning to sell tritium to the U.S., including to military labs there. Energy Probe's vigorous opposition led Ontario Hydro to promise not to decide before April, 1985. Now there is evidence that the Ontario Premier's Council favors going ahead with the deal, despite the massive popular disapproval stirred by Energy Probe and peace groups.

Tritium is the top priority of the U.S. Department of Energy (USDE), which is responsible for nuclear bomb-making. Since tritium decays at the rate of 5.5 percent a year, this imposes on the U.S. de facto nuclear disarmament at the same pace every year. Therefore, at some point in the storage life of a given bomb, the natural loss of tritium will make it a dud unless the lost amount of tritium is replenished.

Chernobyl's American Twin

The current U.S. tritium crisis is an indirect result of the Chernobyl accident. The nuclear reactor at Hanford was similar to that at the Soviet plant. However, the two devices have one major difference: the Chernobyl reactor had a containment structure which the Hanford reactor lacked. Furthermore, all U.S. military production reactors are old and seriously flawed. Thus, public pressure prompted the shutdown of these reactors.

To solve this major problem, the U.S. has only one option: to build another tritium-producing reactor using the same process as Ontario Hydro's reactors, while streamlining the safety rules of the Savannah River plants which were closed for technical reasons. But doing this will take billions of dollars and at least ten years before production gets on stream and enough tritium is produced. By then, roughly half of the tritium in today's American nuclear weapons will have turned to helium, which doesn't do the job. Therefore, the foregoing option is not feasible.

Here is where Canada comes into the picture. Ontario Hydro's tritium-removal facility will yield 2.7 kgs per year. The scaled-up U.S. military nuclear program uses only about 11 kgs a year. Therefore, Ontario Hydro's tritium would significantly affect the U.S.'s supply crisis. In this case, look for direct pressure from George Bush on Brian Mulroney, urging him to supply the United States.

How likely is Ottawa to withstand U.S. pressures? Canada's regulations are designed to ensure that Canadian tritium should be used only for peaceful purposes by any importer. The federal and Ontario governments demand assurance that Canadian tritium would neither be put into nuclear warheads nor free equivalent quantities for military uses from the stocks of the recipient.

Consequently, tritium export deals are considered on a case-by-case basis within the Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB) guidelines. Once a deal is approved, the prospective importer and the federal government formalize the deal with a bilateral agreement. Ontario Hydro has a no-sale policy toward countries who have not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty; customers are required to let Ontario Hydro scientists inspect their records and manufacturing facilities.

But this is not an effective guarantee. In the past, governments have been known to ignore treaties and promises when it suited them. Worse still, by the time a customer's records or facility is examined, Canadian tritium will have been used or mixed with locally-produced tritium. So Canada's safeguards are as full of holes as a tennis net.

So much for Canada's tritium exports to nuclear weapons club members. How about its effect of the substance on our domestic health and environment?

Tritium contamination of our environment is a far greater problem than is commonly acknowledged. A recent study prepared for Durham Nuclear Awareness Project (DNA) by researcher David McArthur concludes that tritium emissions from the Pickering reactors may be the cause of abnormally high infant death rates. The research also attributes to the same cause deaths due to some birth defects in the area.

Greeted with skepticism by Ontario Hydro and the Regional Medical Officer of Health, the report was ignored by the provincial Ministry of Health. DNA is fighting tooth and nail for definitive studies of mortality rates and all aspects of birth defects. First results were released in May showing increased childhood leukemia study around nuclear power power plants in Ontario.

One other important bone of contention between residents of the areas hosting nuclear reactors in Ontario has been the shipment of the radioactive heavy water used in tritium production.

In 1983, Ontario Hydro announced that a combined Tritium Recovery Facility (TRF) would be built at the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station to separate tritium from the heavy water used by Bruce, Pickering, and Darlington reactors. This meant that the radioactive water would have to be shipped across Ontario. But the residents of these areas blocked the plan because of its inherent dangers.

Energy Probe unsuccessfully sought an environmental assessment of the Darlington TRF. It argued in a court case against Ontario Hydro that the operation of the facility, the shipment of the radioactive water, and the use and storage of tritium must be excluded from the exemption under the Environmental Assessment Act granted to the Darlington Nuclear Stations in 1977.

Who's Protecting Whom?

It seems that radiation protection laws protect the nuclear industry, rather than people and the environment. In Canada, the AECB formulates codes of practice based on recommendations by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP).

The ICRP is not solely concerned with protecting public health. It tries to balance health against "reasonable latitude for expansion of atomic energy." But its closed club structure ensures that decisions are dominated by people with vested interests in the use of radioactive materials. This circle includes the civilian and military nuclear establishments and medical radiologists.

The ICRP recommendations on how to avert tritium hazards to health and environment are based on unsubstantiated assumptions. According to ICRP, tritium has a biological half-life (the amount of time the body requires to excrete one half of the tritium absorbed) of ten days. This figure actually ranges from ten days to two years, depending on tritium's location in the body.

Tritiated water can be retained in cell fluids. It can also be incorporated into biochemical molecules through metabolism. This organically-bound tritium can cause far more damage than tritiated water. Tritiated organic molecules can pass to growing embryos across the placental barrier.

Contrary to ICRP belief that tritium is evenly distributed to all soft tissues in the body, it accumulates in ovaries and testes. The beta radiation emitted by tritium at the cellular level can cause cancer and lead to genetic disease and deformities in succeeding generations if it damages reproductive cells.

Against this broad backdrop, intensive public pressure is the only way to avert misuse of tritium. Thus if you don't want Canadian tritium to go into nuclear bombs or to be used for environmentally, genetically, and medically destructive purposes, write to your MPP, to the Ontario Ministry of Health, and to the Prime Minister of Ontario. Readers outside Ontario can write to their M.P.s and to the Minister of Energy, Mines, and Resources.

Irene Kock works with Nuclear Awareness Project, Joy Phillips with Canadian Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, and Norman Rubin with Energy Probe in Toronto.

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1989

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1989, page 20. Some rights reserved.

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