Scientists have called for a coordinated international effort to fully assess the environmental impacts of tritium before the expected large increase in its global production.
Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, which is a by-product of the nuclear industry and its presence is expected to grow exponentially as nuclear energy is increasingly considered key to the global low-carbon economy.
This will result in many nations having to develop long-term strategies for managing waste radioactive waste and developing tools to assess and address its environmental impact.
However, writing in the journal macroenvironmental scienceScientists from the UK and France say its full potential impact is not yet known with studies conducted up to this point focusing mostly on species of marine bivalves, fish and rodents.
These studies also focused on laboratory experiments, often with high concentrations of tritium that are unlikely to be found in the wider environment.
There has also been little interest in how a wide variety of organisms absorb tritium through different routes, and whether they in turn pose continuing threats to human health through the food chain.
The researchers also say that tritium bound to steel and cement particles, arising from decommissioning or dismantling of nuclear reactors, needs further exploration.
The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Plymouth and the French Committee for Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy (CEA), who have collaborated for many years on studies evaluating the impact of radioactive and chemical compounds on the environment.
In their conclusion, they say that a concerted, consistent focus is urgently needed to develop the evidence base required to minimize the impact of tritium on everything from individual species to the environment as a whole.
Awadesh Jha, Professor of Genetic Toxicology and Environmental Toxicology at the University of Plymouth and senior author of the study, said, “Globally, tritium is produced and discharged into the environment in huge amounts compared to other radioactive materials. Its importance is being further recognized by the development of fusion technology to ensure energy security without “Greenhouse gas emissions. Their ecological behavior, impact on wild species and any potential risk to humans across the food chain have not been adequately assessed up to this point. The importance of doing so cannot be urgently underestimated.”
Dr. María Florencia Ferreira, postdoctoral researcher and lead author, added, “After reviewing the available information on the effects of tritium in non-human species, we identified various research gaps in this area. We have suggested future research directions for appropriate assessment of environmental impacts and coordinated risk assessment of these nuclides important radioactive”.
The study was conducted as part of Project TRANSAT (Trans-Tritium Actions).
Dr. Christian Grisulia, of the French Commission for Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy (CEA) and General Coordinator of the TRANSAT project, said, “One of the goals of the TRANSAT project was to assess the impact of tritium on humans and non-humans. This paper demonstrated the extent of our current knowledge about tritium and its potential effects, and will help in Bridging knowledge gaps as we move science forward in an area of both scientific and economic importance.”
Maria Florencia Ferreira et al, Tritium: Its Importance, Sources, and Effects on Non-Human Organisms, macroenvironmental science (2023). DOI: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2023.162816
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