Tritium leaks at nuclear power plants

I’ve got family from Greensboro, NC visiting and we got talking about energy.  They were telling me that there’s a controversy in NC over Duke Energy (a utility company) trying to charge ratepayers for a coal ash spill accident that occurred a few years ago and to pay for new regulations over coal ash.  Although much of the area around Greensboro is served by Duke Energy, the city of High Point just outside of it is not.  It gets its power from a different provider, with no or very little coal fired electricity and mostly nuclear power from a plant in South Carolina just southwest of Charlotte, NC. The city of High Point is totally exempt from this rate paying controversy due to nuclear. Pretty interesting!  My family didn’t even know that nuclear supplies a significant portion of power to their state.

I read up on the Catawba nuclear power plant and the only incident with it listed on Wikipedia was a tritium release (I’m not saying Wikipedia is the best or only source but it’s a good source to review among many).  Last year I had written an article for the New York Water Environment Association (NYWEA) on a tritium leak from the Indian Point nuclear power plant just outside of New York City.  The media doesn’t do very good reporting on tritium leaks, so it reminded me of the article I wrote and that I could post it here on my website as well.  This should provide context for just about any news about tritium leaks at nuclear power plants.

I hope you find this interesting and insightful.  As always, I’m eager for feedback and responses!

Balancing the Facts on Tritium Levels at Indian Point
On February 6, 2016, the Entergy Corporation notified state and federal authorities and the public that elevated levels of radioactive tritium were found in 3 out of over 40 groundwater test wells underneath the Indian Point Energy Center (nuclear power plant) in Buchanan, NY, located about 30 miles north of Manhattan [1,2]. The tritium levels were approximately 1,000 times smaller than those which trigger mandatory reporting to authorities and did not pose a threat to the environment or human health, but much of the media coverage focused on alarmist angles or facts that distracted from this core message.

The timing of this incident after the water-related tragedies in Flint, Michigan and Hoosick Falls, New York might contribute to a heightened concern about water quality. Radiation is invisible and not well understood by the public or media; and, naturally, we tend to fear what we do not understand. There is also a great deal of misinformation spread about radiation by anti-nuclear organizations and individuals. It is, therefore, important to transparently discuss and analyze the radioactive tritium leak at Indian Point.

Figure 1. The Indian Point Generating Station in Buchanan, NY
Source: Wikipedia, creative commons license

What is Tritium?
Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen with a half-life of about 12 years and a biological half-life of approximately 10 days [3]. Typical non-radioactive hydrogen has 1 proton and no neutrons, while tritium has 3 nuclear particles: 1 proton and 2 neutrons. The short biological half-life of tritium means that it does not accumulate within biological organisms because half of any ingested quantity is excreted every 10 days. At 100 days after ingestion, for example, only 0.1 percent would remain (10 biological half-lives, or 0.5 raised to the power of 10).

Figure 2. Nuclei of the three isotopes of hydrogen: protium (normal hydrogen),               deuterium, and tritium.

Tritium is naturally present at very low levels in the environment via interactions of high energy cosmic rays with gaseous particles in the atmosphere. Tritium decays into a non-radioactive helium atom, releasing a beta particle which is essentially a high energy electron [3]. Radiation damages cells and DNA, but cells have elaborate repair mechanisms [4] and no health effects are observed at low doses [5].

Based on detailed studies and modeling, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) set maximum drinking water standards for tritium at 20,000 pCi/L (picoCuries per liter of water) [6]. The Curie is a fairly large measure of radiation, but pico means one trillionth or 0.000000000001 of something, so the picoCurie – or even 20,000 pCi – represents a very small amount of radiation. The NRC’s studies showed that if water with a 20,000 pCi/L concentration of tritium was consumed by a person over the course of a whole year, this would result in a radiation dose of less than 2 mrem (millirem) in that year [6].

This 2 mrem dose is very small, and is:
**   Half the dose from a roundtrip flight between Washington, DC and Los Angeles (4 mrem) (because less atmosphere at higher elevations results in lessradiation shielding).
**  About 7 times less than the dose we all receive from naturally occurring radioactive potassium in our bodies (15 mrem)
** 75 times less than the average exposure Americans receive from medical tests and procedures each year (150 mrem).
** 150 times less than the average annual dose from natural background radiation in our environment (300 mrem) [6].

Thus, daily ingestion of water with a concentration of 20,000 pCi/L is safe. In fact, it could be argued that the tritium drinking water limit is rather conservative, erring on the side of caution since none of us thinks twice about the radiation dose we get from flying or from the naturally occurring radioactive atoms in our bodies.

Tritium Releases from Indian Point
The Indian Point Energy Center has two separate nuclear reactors, since unit costs are decreased by operating more than one reactor at the same site. The reactors are known as Pressurized Water Reactors (PWRs) because water at high pressures is used to cool the reactor core and carry heat to steam turbines that generate electricity. The fundamental basis of nuclear power in PWRs is that Uranium-235 absorbs a neutron, splits or fissions into 2 smaller nuclei, and this reaction releases a large amount of energy. In addition, either 2 or 3 neutrons are produced when each uranium atom fissions, and these neutrons can make other Uranium-235 atoms split. The reaction is controlled using non-fissionable materials that absorb neutrons, preventing them from reacting with U-235.

One of the ways the nuclear reaction is controlled in PWRs is by adjusting the concentration of boric acid in the coolant water. Boron is an excellent neutron absorber, giving operators a way to fine tune the power output of the reactor. The coolant water is housed in separate pipes and does not come into direct contact with the reactor. Some tritium is produced in the coolant loop by the interaction of neutrons from the reactor with boron atoms. Tritium, therefore, builds up in the coolant and must be purged from time to time. Because the concentrations are low from a safety and environmental perspective, PWR reactors are permitted to intentionally dilute and release the tritiated water under strict guidelines [6].

The elevated groundwater tritium levels beneath Indian Point indicate a leak in underground pipes that store and transport coolant water. Regulations do not allow the unintentional discharge of tritiated water no matter how low the concentration, so Indian Point must locate and fix or replace any leaky pipe sections. The best current understanding is that a leak in the pipes between storage and release is responsible for the elevated levels. Investigations into the cause continue. [1,2]

Typical concentrations of tritium in the 40 groundwater testing wells beneath Indian Point were 12,300 pCi/L. The elevated tritium levels found in three of the groundwater monitoring wells were initially as high as 8 million pCi and later increased to 14 million pCi [7,8]. Many articles reported the first figure as a dangerous or “alarming” 65,000 percent increase in radiation levels or reported that it was 400 times the drinking water limit [7]. The numerical figures themselves are accurate, but are not dangerous because the site was designed so its groundwater does not flow to drinking water, but rather flows to a discharge canal where it is intentionally diluted. In addition, further dilution to undetectable levels occurs upon reaching the Hudson River. For more information, see Reference 9, written by John Kelly, a retired radiation protection manager who oversaw construction of Indian Point and has lived near and worked at the plant for decades.

Many media articles were comparing apples to oranges by reporting radiation levels in comparison to drinking water levels. When the public reads that radiation levels are 400 times higher than regulatory limits, this naturally causes worry and sounds frightening. But the 20,000 pCi regulatory limit is specifically for drinking water and, as previously discussed, the site was specifically engineered and designed such that groundwater would be highly diluted to safe levels and would not flow into drinking water sources.
Media articles also quoted other safety related information, such as the fact that 317,000 people live within a 10-mile evacuation planning zone around the reactor [7]. This may bias the public toward thinking about catastrophic nuclear incidents, whereas, consequences of the tritium leak were insignificant from a human health or environmental perspective (but still required action to remedy).

Is Any Radiation Exposure Harmful?
One of the most common anti-nuclear arguments is that radiation is harmful at any dose. Radiation at small doses does cause limited small scale cellular damage, but the body has intricate repair mechanisms [4,5] and no long-term damage occurs. Cellular DNA can be damaged by metabolic byproducts like free radicals, and DNA copying errors are relatively frequent during cell division. “Cells have evolved a number of mechanisms to detect and repair the various types of damage that can occur to DNA, no matter whether this damage is caused by the environment or by errors in replication” [4]. We know that at low doses radiation does not produce health effects.

An example of a response to the Indian Point tritium link that focuses on the supposed danger of even a single radioactive atom is a citizens group called Shut Down Indian Point NOW!, which released the following flier to build support for a town hall meeting on the tritium leak:

Figure 3:  Flyer about shutting down Indian Point.  Obtained from the “Shut Down Indian Point! NOW! Network” Facebook Page

The flier highlights some of the misleading facts/statistics already discussed, but it also invokes images of at-risk infants and pregnant women. It further claims that the ingestion or inhalation of even a single molecule of a radioactive isotope can “cause cancer, birth defects, and mutation” — a clear case of inciting irrational fear. We continually breathe extremely low levels of radiation, such as radioactive Carbon-14 that forms the basis of carbon dating techniques. But atoms are incredibly tiny, so when we ingest or breathe extremely low concentrations of radioactive atoms we still ingest or breathe huge numbers of them!

An example is the potassium-rich banana. The average banana contains about 0.4 grams of potassium, and about 0.0117 percent of all potassium in the world consists of radioactive K-40 [10]. A single banana, therefore, contains 0.0000468 g of radioactive K-40 (0.4 g × 0.0117%). From basic chemistry, the molecular weight of potassium is 39 g/mol or 40 g/mol for K-40, and every mole contains 6.02 x 10^23 atoms (Avogadro’s number). Converting 0.000468 g of radioactive Potassium-40 to atoms, this is 7×10^17 (or 700,000,000,000,000,000) radioactive atoms ingested! From this, it should be clear that the ingestion of a single atom of a radioactive substance is not dangerous and will not cause mutations, cancer, etc.

Radiation is unseen, poorly understood by the public, and is the subject of much science fiction. Scientific knowledge and transparency surrounding topics of radiation can help alleviate public fears and help us as a society to focus our limited time and resources on issues with a high impact on human and environmental health. To use an analogy, if the tragedies in Flint, Michigan and Hoosick Falls, New York were as dangerous as charging rhinos, then the tritium leaks at Indian Point would be like a house fly – irritating, perhaps, but not a threat.

1. Entergy Statement on Comprehensive Groundwater Monitoring Program and Elevated Tritium at Indian Point,
2. Information on Groundwater Monitoring Program and Tritium at Indian Point,
3. Idaho State University Radiation Information Network Tritium Information Section,
4. Clancy, S. “DNA damage & repair: mechanisms for maintaining DNA integrity.” Nature Education 1.1 (2008): 103.
5. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Backgrounder on Biological Effects of Radiation.
6. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Backgrounder on Tritium, Radiation Protection Limits, and Drinking Water Standards.
7. CNN. Indian Point nuclear plant leak causes radioactivity in groundwater. Feb 6, 2016.
8. Reuters, Indian Point tritium leak 80% worse than originally reported. Feb 10, 2016.
9. Bill Kelly, Rockland Times Op-Ed. Former Entergy Manager says It’s Time to End Political Fear-Mongering about Indian Point. Feb 25, 2016.
10. Argonne National Laboratory. Human Health Fact Sheet, K-40. August 2005.

Religion as Pearls and Ashes

Finding the truly transformative aspects of religion isn’t this hard, but it does take a significant effort!

We humans have a remarkable ability to compartmentalize parts of our lives: to simultaneously hold conflicting sets of worldviews or perspectives.  This is useful because the world Is a complex place.  We need multiple tools and approaches for coping with life and pursuing wholeness.  But this kind of compartmentalization can be extremely frustrating when it comes to discussing and analyzing the relationship between, say, science and religion.  One example is Francis Collins, an atheist/agnostic turned Christian apologist, head of the National Institutes for Health, and a highly regarded scientist in the human genome project.

Collins is a prolific writer on science and religion, with titles like The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.  But according to his own words, what ultimately resolved his search is that he was hiking and saw a really striking three-part waterfall.  It reminded him of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (God = God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit).  Boom, his searching, wondering, and struggle was done.  He was a Christian.

I’d never knock this story as forming part of someone’s spiritual journey.  I recognize he went through a long process of figuring out what he believes and why.  But if you’re then going to become an apologist and make it your point to argue in the public sphere why Christianity is right (and for him, implicitly why other religions are “wrong”) then that story really doesn’t cut it, especially running with the scientist angle!  I completely sympathize when atheists get flummoxed by such a subjective explanation of religious belief.

Some of my own views on religion align with those of two prominent personalities: Leo Tolstoy (not many seem to know he wrote extensively on religion!), and the American physicist Richard Feynman.  Tolstoy described religions using a metaphor – they are each like a sack containing pearls of infinite worth mixed up with and often hidden by a lot of ashes.  In other words, religion comes with its own baggage: all sorts of corruption, in-fighting, violence in the process of creating doctrine, hypocrisy, and forms of “idolatry” that infiltrate scriptures, such as nationalism, tribalism, and sexism.

My own journey resonates with this.  When I read that Jesus says to “knock and the door shall be opened to you” and “search and you shall find” I think of this metaphor.  It makes sense that there’s a lot of sifting and sorting to do.  There are pearls to find, but it’s an ongoing process, not a quick journey that’s over all at once.  Through a lot of searching over a decade or so (questioning my beliefs, exploring contemplative Christianity, living in a couple of monasteries, learning about other religions, being involved in interfaith groups), I came to see some of the pearls within Christianity, and to understand its limitations and the problem areas: the ashes.

During part of Richard Feynman’s career, he was a professor and mentor of graduate students.  Some of his students struggled the conflicts between their religious Christian upbringing and the science they were learning.  Feynman ultimately came to describe the challenge of the science vs. religion debate as one of being able to distinguish and preserve the wonderful moral teachings and inspiration of religion while being able to challenge specific worldviews or claims about objective, scientific reality that they make.  I think this is an especially important point for prominent atheists to engage in.  I think much more progress will be made extending the conversation to the pearls of religion and the many internal tools and teachings they contain to weed out the good from the bad and point to the dangers of hypocrisy and power.  Many atheists are motivated by a humanist desire to decrease suffering related to religious belief, so this could be a fertile ground of exploration.

I believe Sam Harris, despite my disagreements with him on some topics, is one of these.  I love his metaphor of the Moral Landscape, in which he envisions a 3-D map with many different peaks and valleys, where the peaks correspond to different ways of human flourishing and the valleys correspond to the many ways we can make ourselves and others suffer.  He could contribute to the transformation of religion by focusing more on the peaks of well-being specifically within religious traditions.

As Feynman’s viewpoint alludes to, religion often makes claims about the world or universe that it isn’t qualified to and doesn’t need to make such as the idea that Earth is the center of universe, back in Galileo’s day.  That was (taken to be) an important theological idea then, but come on, it’s not actually essential to Christianity.  Something similar today happens over topics like evolution.

My own experience in the interfaith group Religions for Peace, exposure to monastic interfaith religious dialogue, and love for food has led me to my own metaphor.  Each religion (with exceptions like Scientism) is like a culinary tradition from a nation or region of the world.  Each has many things beautiful, tasty, and wonderful to offer.  While foods are clearly different across the world, they are also the same in many fundamental ways (nutrition, chemistry, aesthetics and creative pursuits, etc) as well.

Each cuisine of the world also has its own types of junk food.  I think the discourse on religion, science, atheism, and ethics will improve as we increasingly recognize that the world’s religions have tremendous and wonderful commonalities, and when we are also keenly aware of and open to talking about their limitations – most especially the ways that they can be and are used (or abused/warped) in ways that cause tremendous pain and suffering.  It’s especially important to have a deep understanding of a religion in order to understand if negative actions or beliefs ascribed to the religion are an integral part of it or are instead a parasite, addition, or perversion of the original teachings and spirit of the religion.

On its own, I recognize that many people will find my food metaphor too simple.  I look forward to getting into more depth on all of this!

As always, I welcome your thoughts and questions!

The devil at work in the climate change “debate”?

A wolf in sheep’s clothing: another metaphor or image of Satan, the father of lies

A couple of weeks ago, my city’s newspaper, the Post-Standard, published an article framing climate change as a debate, with side-by-side columns arguing climate change is real and is not real.  This article was nationally syndicated: sent to newspapers across the country for publishing.  Much of the media has rejected the so-called “equal time” policy giving both sides of an argument a voice when one is simply false.  But not the Post-Standard, apparently.  A few letters to the editor were published expressing displeasure with this action, and I decided to write one from a religious angle.  It didn’t get published, so I’m sharing it here. It’s a bit of an unusual approach, but I think it’s accurate and important to say.

To the Editor:

As an environmental engineer, person of faith, and Coordinator of the interfaith Religions for Peace International Youth Committee, I am shocked and dismayed that the Post-Standard published a prominent article giving credence to the view that human actions – most notably burning of fossil fuels – are not causing climate change. (Should Congress defy Trump and move quickly on climate change,” February 5). This is a truly Satanic – yes Satanic – action by both the author William Happer and the Post-Standard.

Although I don’t believe Satan is a literal being, the concept is nonetheless powerful and profound. Satan is the father of lies, a master deceiver who parades as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14).  The article in question pits a mere “progressive commentator” who argues climate change is real versus William Happer, an emeritus physics professor who is knowingly or unknowingly acting as a mouthpiece of the devil.  By the contrast of credentials, the article wants us to believe that Happer is an “angel” representing science, knowledge, and truth while the progressive commentator is wrong and climate change is a lie.  We must see past this devilish deception.

We have known since the 1860s (John Tyndall) that CO2 traps heat from sunlight.  In the 1980s, simple calculations by scientists showed that humanity’s fossil fuel use would lead to higher CO2 levels than the Earth has experienced in hundreds of thousands of years, and was increasing at a rate thousands of times faster than natural change.

All people of good will, of all religions and no religion, must resist lies denying climate change.  Further, we need to demand practical and bi-partisan solutions that will also help the economy, such as a revenue neutral carbon fee and dividend.

Science to dispel fear


Fear is a powerful emotion.  It can be used to control others, to gain power, to gain money, or to gain recognition as an “expert”.  It can also motivate us to action, and even to do the right thing in some cases.

Science can help us know what we should and should not fear, and what potentially to do about the things we fear.  Thus, science can help to dispel fear.  (Too much fear is not a good thing – it distracts us from other things we should give more of our attention to, and it can prevent us from enjoying the good things around us.)

What prompted my thoughts on this right now?  I just learned that on Feb. 19, there was a small release of radioactivity from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP – click to see their summary) in Carlsbad, NM.  (WIPP is a long-term storage site for nuclear waste materials related to past nuclear weapons activities – it’s not used for commercial waste produced by nuclear power plants.)

What frustrates me is that so many people have an “expert opinion” on this topic through the blogosphere, with people citing SECRET SOURCES and NEW CALCULATIONS that reveal that we’re all going to die from this event.  (I am exaggerating…barely…but you get the point.)

There are many people who consider themselves progressives, or just care about the environment and have an opinion on various nuclear issues.  But who you trust for your info means a lot.  My dad is a great and wonderful person, but he gets his news and analysis of current events through very conservative sources, so he frequently surprises me with the ideas that he absorbs and accepts when he’s otherwise also an extremely intelligent person.  I think this phenomenon is much more recognized as occurring on the far right, but it actually happens just as much (or at least a lot) on the far left, and this (in my opinion) really contributes to discrediting progressive causes and movements.

There is money to be made in fear.  Here is one example.  A blog that purports to do its own (fatally flawed) calculations on the WIPP radiation release, with a nice “Donate via Paypal” button that says the money will go to testing of food for radiation.  Yeah right.  When I click on it, its paypal label is just the name of the blogger, like any other donation link anywhere else on the site.


The first blog I saw on this topic is here.  It attracted over 90 comments, which I’m jealous of!  😉   Look at all the experts responding with new calculations, insider reports, etc. about how we’re gonna die.   Below is my response:


I’m new to your site, just having stumbled upon it doing some google searching on this WIPP incident.

One thing I find lacking in much discussion about radioactivity is context – specifically, what do the numbers cited mean, and how do they compare to other numbers related to radioactivity that we routinely experience?

A Bq (becquerel) is an absolutely minuscule measure of radioactivity. The release of a handful of Bq’s truly poses no health risks. I think we should actually feel *safer* and *more secure* knowing that WIPP can detect and respond to minuscule releases, giving us confidence that it won’t release larger quantities.

And here’s some perspective on numbers. Many radioactive materials are naturally occurring. C-14, for instance, is everywhere. That’s how we do carbon dating. Life has evolved in the presence of background radiation, so background radiation levels are not harmful. The levels cited in this WIPP incident and your article here – 0.64 Bq and 0.092 Bq – are much less than natural background, and much less even than the amount of radiation *contained in any banana*. A banana has on average 15 Bq of radioactive potassium. A banana explosion would release much more radiation than this event.

And I’m not trying to say the release of radiation is not a concern. It is! But it’s a concern for the WIPP people, too, and they managed it quite well. I haven’t read your blog, so I don’t know, but I would think you should be much more concerned about the rail accidents involving trains carrying oil from the Canadian tar sands. These have actually killed people!

As for the criticism of offering free radiation testing, this is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. People hype up radiation because it’s scary. People get afraid over events like this. If WIPP does nothing and offers no concrete way of assuring people they are safe (through free testing of anyone who’s worried they were exposed) they will be criticized. If they *do* offer this testing as a means of public reassurance, people will criticize that too (as is done in many of these comments).

Here’s info on the bananas:

Looking forward to some good discussion.


We’ll see what happens.

Hello world!

Welcome to my blog!  This is my first post, the traditional “Hello, World!” message.  I hope to be saying hello to people all over the world through this website and the discussions it will foster, taking a “big picture” perspective on topics of religion, science, and spirituality.

I chose the banner at the top of this site because it reflects different perspectives that I bring and hold together in tension – ones that are not often brought forward in public discourse about science and religion.  I recognize something valuable in atheism and its critique of religion, as well as Jesus, Buddha, and interspiritual approaches.  Forward progress will be made as topics such as these are synthesized and integrated.

I am critical of much of religion but see its potential for spirituality and know that its strong mark on culture, art, and daily life cannot simply be erased.  The trick is to keep the baby while throwing out the bathwater.  The transformation will seem like a destruction for those within it who cling to rules, dogma, and the comfort of the status quo.  Others are ready to push religion forward, to deal responsibly with its flaws and to ask the questions we are afraid or at least hesitant to ask.

Prometheus is the center of the site’s banner – a very interesting and multi-faceted figure.  He is known for bringing fire to the earth when the gods withheld it out of fear that humans could come to rival them.  Prometheus is also a symbol of the danger and recklessness of humankind when tempted by power and the urge to shape the world to our every whim.  He represents an adversarial attitude toward God or the gods, one in which the gods are remarkably petty like we can be.


Although I recognize the validity of critiques about God and religion – even religion as an opiate of the people – I understand and experience someone like Jesus as instead bringing fire to the earth through peoples’ hearts – a passion, joy, spontaneity, and joyfully rebellious nature.  Christianity usually stifles this as well as his questioning, critiquing nature and his emphasis on God as spirit that cannot be contained, controlled, or limited to one practice or idea.  I admire and respect those like Leo Tolstoy, Gandhi, Bede Griffiths, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, and Martin Luther King, Jr. who have come to similar understandings of Jesus and spirituality that cross the boundaries of religion and led them to simultaneously challenge and broaden religion.

So much of religion hinges on what we make God out to be.  Do we think of God as vengeful, jealous, and irrational as we often are, or accept it when we’re told this by our religion or scriptures?  Or does God represent the very best of what humanity can be, something and some spirit that we can always aspire to, recognize, and access within ourselves?

Check out other parts of my website detailing more about my background, perspective, and a couple of other interests.  I welcome your comments and questions as we delve into the strengths and weaknesses of religion, atheist critiques and voices, interspirituality, contemplation, and science.  It’s time to move beyond a narrow, divisive view and practice of religion and to recognize the spiritual truths and practices at the core of many world religions and secular philosophies.  With these, we can move forward beyond religion to a spirituality and science that are aligned.