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How much tritium is safe?

Pembroke Daily Observer: ANTHONY DIXON - January 12, 2008

The debate over how much tritium a human can be safely exposed to continues to be waged in Pembroke.

In the wake of a workshop in Ottawa hosted by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) on Tuesday, environmental lobbyists - the Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County, The First Six Years and Greenpeace - held a teleconference for Ottawa Valley media on Friday.

"As concerned citizens we've been intervening for years at hearings related to tritium emissions at AECL labs at Chalk River and SRB in Pembroke," said Ole Hendrickson, a researcher with the Concerned Citizens.

"Over the years we've asked questions about health affects and the levels here compared to other areas and how much exposure local residents have compared to people living by the nuclear power reactors in southern Ontario. What's the dose? Is it harmful?"

This question of whether or not there are health risks or long-term health risks associated with tritium emissions from places like nuclear power stations, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited at Chalk River and SRB Technologies, a company on Boundary Road in Pembroke, has been asked for years and depending on who you ask, you will get a different answer.

Shawn-Patrick Stencil of Greenpeace said tritium standards have long been controversial and said Canada's standards are more lax than elsewhere.

The Concerned Citizens group has never accepted Ontario's current drinking water standard for radioactivity which is set 70 times higher than the European Union standard.

Ontario is in the process of re-examining its drinking water standard. The Minister of the Environment requested in February 2007 that the Ontario Drinking Water Advisory Council provide the ministry with advice on the current Ontario Drinking Water Quality Standard for Tritium. Four of the committee members were at the workshop.

Dr. Ian Fairlie, who took part in Friday's media teleconference and in Tuesday's workshop, will be making a presentation to the Ontario Drinking Water Quality Standard Committee Tritium Working Group on January 16.

Dr. Fairlie said a number of scientific reports have come out on the health affects of tritium in recent months and that the studies point to tritium being more hazardous than first thought.

"This is a good time in Canada to revisit the issue. There was a workshop hosted by the CNSC on Tuesday where we heard quite a range of opinions," Dr. Fairlie said.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has requested its staff members begin research studies on tritium releases in Canada and asked them to study and evaluate the best practices of tritium processing facilities around the world.

Tuesday's workshop was part of that study.

The purpose of the study is to upgrade and improve the information used by the commission in regulatory oversight of tritium processing and releases in Canada.

The research was requested by the commission in its record of proceedings, including reasons for the decision published in January 2007 regarding SRB Technologies application to renew its operating licence.

The study commenced in 2007 and will continue for several years.

Analysis with recommendations, if required, for changes to the regulatory framework for tritium processing facilities in Canada will take place during the winter of 2010.

Dr. Fairlie said he had tritium exposure limit numbers in mind but he was unwilling to state them during the teleconference. Instead, he suggested in relation to the drinking water standards, that the committee look at the recommendations made in the 1994 Advisory Committee on Environmental Standards (ACES) report on tritium standards.

Dave Martin, energy and climate co-ordinator for Greenpeace, said the ACES recommendations were ignored back in the 1990s after Ontario Power Generation said the limits were too strict and would cost too much money.

SRB president Stephane Levesque said he wasn't concerned about tritium regulations possibly being tightened as he is confident that SRB's emissions will be under whatever regulatory number adjustments could be made.

Mr. Levesque provided some numbers to back up his beliefs.

He said someone living beside SRB, eating vegetables grown in the ground and drinking only well water would be receiving five per cent of the annual dose limit set by the nuclear safety commission for radiation exposure from a company.

Statistics provided by the CNSC show a comparison. A chest X-ray would expose a person to seven per cent of their annual dose limit, while flying from Toronto to Vancouver and back would expose someone to two per cent of their annual dose limit through cosmic radiation.

Mr. Levesque said SRB's emissions, if it is given a licence to resume full operation, should be even less than when tritium processing was suspended in 2007.

"In the past year we have worked extremely hard to make further improvements which will result in even lower emissions if we resume operations. In the last year we have also installed 27 new monitoring wells on and around the facility and our groundwater studies now include monitoring data from 55 wells," Mr. Levesque said.

SRB has been operating in Pembroke since 1991. It manufactures glow-in-the- dark signs and other illuminated products using the radioactive substance tritium.

The commission turned down the company's application for an operating licence renewal in January 2007, instead issuing an amended licence in May that allowed the company to receive tritium-filled light sources from other facilities that it can sell to its customers.

While this has allowed the company to stay in business while it makes changes to its operation to bring it in line with the commission's recommendations, about two-thirds of its regular labour force had to be laid off.

When Dr. Fairlie returns to the United Kingdom, he will begin working on a new computer model that he feels will be more accurate in assessing the risk of exposure and particularly, long-term exposure.

He suggested if people are concerned about the issue, they should make some epresentation to the committee studying drinking water standards and also pressure the government to tighten emission standards for airborne tritium.

Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke MP Cheryl Gallant came away from Tuesday's workshop in Ottawa feeling unconcerned about tritium emissions.

"From what I have heard today, there is a clear absence of evidence to suggest that tritium exposure to workers in the industry or local residents is linked to any disease. That in and of itself is good news for the people of the Upper Ottawa Valley," she said. "The meeting was interspersed with a group of alarmists who had no data to substantiate their fear mongering. This is very unfortunate for those who came to hear the facts. Any decision regarding tritium

must be a science-based decision based on the evidence."

Dr. Fairlie responded to Ms. Gallant's comments during the teleconference saying she is entitled to her own view, but it was difficult to agree with because he feels there is new evidence pointing to tritium exposure being more harmful than first thought.

Mr. Stencil of Greenpeace said Ms. Gallant has her head in the sand and accused her of advocating that Canada has the lowest international standard in this regard.

"This is a challenge to our nuclear industry. If the nuclear industry elsewhere in the world is more stringent, why should we expect or deserve less here in Canada?" Ms. Stencil said.

adixon@thedailyobserver.ca

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