14 July 2006
SETI League
PriUPS Project


Danger, Danger... Well Maybe Not

I occasionally amuse myself by writing to magazines to whine about nonsense.  The nonsense can be theirs, that of their readers or the public, or, of course, mine.  In this case, it was a letter (yes, a letter!  By post!) to Science News to whine about a "problem" at Brookhaven National Laboratory.  It seems that they had a tritium leak.  Tritium is the isotope of hydrogen that is radioactive.  To be sure, one would not like to be exposed to quantities of the stuff.  However...

Science News:  July 5, 1997
Reactions to Brookhaven brouhaha

I just read that the Department of Energy is proposing to spend $25 million to clean up "low concentrations of radioactive tritium" in the soil around Brookhaven National Laboratory ("Science's Role in Shake-Up of DOE Lab," SN: 5/10/97, p. 284). Unlike many fission by-products with half-lives of thousands of years, tritium has a half-life of about 12 years. If the leak is stopped, the "problem" will go away by itself fairly quickly.

Since the leak has been occurring for 10 years and was just now noticed, maybe the "problem" can be ignored and the money spent on something more useful.

Richard Factor Kinnelon, N.J.

Brookhaven spokeswoman Mona Rowe says the tritiated water may be moving so slowly that, with dilution and natural decay, it's already reached equilibrium and won't get any higher at the farthest edge of the plume of contamination, which is still inside the perimeter of the laboratory site. If so, "from a technical perspective, it may be that no action is necessary," she says. "But we're not convinced of that yet." Moreover, she notes, the public, which has a say in cleanup decisions, may reject that option. -- J. Raloff

"From a technical perspective, it may be that no action is necessary."  In other words, I was right.  (Probably - they did leave a weasel-size opening.)  But the public "may reject that option."  In other words, let's spend $25 million to do something unnecessary.  Any guess which "public" will pay for this?  Or will have paid for this?  I think I'll send an email to Brookhaven spokeswoman Mona Rowe and find out.  If I get a response I'll add it below.  Good grief - I'm starting to act like a journalist!

Ms. Rowe kindly responded:

"The short answer is that the tritium plume that originated from the spent-fuel pool of the High Flux Beam Reactor has over time continued to attenuate as expected. The HFBR is now permanently shut down."

Which I take to mean that no expensive cleanup is or was necessary. 

Follow-up 05 Sept. 2006

I usually read my Physics Today attentively.  Clearly not attentively enough.  David Marasco pointed out an item I had missed or forgotten:

...In short, a mob of torch-bearing, pitchfork-wielding townfolk managed to shutdown a fine scientific instrument over the amount of radioactivity found in a tritium-powered exit sign. At taxpayer expense, of course.

Richard Factor