Before the production of tritium further increases, scientists have asked for a coordinated international effort to thoroughly evaluate the environmental effects of tritium.
Tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, is a byproduct of the nuclear industry. Its prevalence is expected to increase rapidly as nuclear power is increasingly recognized as a crucial component of the global low-carbon economy.
Consequently, many countries will need to create long-term plans to handle tritiated radioactive waste and instruments to evaluate and deal with its impact on the environment.
Although studies to date have mainly focused on species of marine bivalves, fish, and rodents, scientists from the UK and France write in the journal Science of the Total Environment that its complete potential effect is still unclear.
These investigations have mainly focused on lab-based experiments, frequently using high tritium concentrations that are unlikely to be present in natural environments.
Additionally, there has not been much thought put into how various species absorb tritium via different pathways and whether this could cause long-term risks to human health via the food chain.
The tritium linked with steel and cement particles produced during the decommissioning or dismantling of nuclear plants, according to the experts, needs to be further investigated.
Researchers from the University of Plymouth and the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), who have worked together on studies evaluating the effects of radioactive and chemical compounds in the environment for many years, conducted the study.
In their conclusion, they state that it is vitally necessary to coordinate and maintain concentration to build the evidence foundation necessary to minimize tritium's effects on everything from individual species to the ecosystem as a whole.
Globally, tritium is produced and discharged in the environment in huge quantities when compared to other radioactive substances. Its importance is being further realized through development of fusion technology to ensure energy security without greenhouse gas emissions.
Awadhesh Jha, Study Senior Author and Professor, Genetic Toxicology and Ecotoxicology, University of Plymouth
Jha added, “Understanding its environmental behavior and impact on wild species, and any potential risk to humans via the food chain, has not been adequately evaluated to this point. The importance of doing so urgently cannot be underestimated.”
Dr. Maria Florencia Ferreira, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Plymouth stated, “After reviewing the available information on effects of tritium in non-human species, we identified various research gaps in the field. We have suggested future research directions in order to adequately assess the environmental impacts and the harmonized risk assessment of this important radionuclide.”
The research was conducted as part of the TRANSAT (TRANSversal Actions for Tritium) project, which is a £4 million global initiative sponsored by the European Commission's Horizon 2020 program.
One of the objectives of the TRANSAT project has been to evaluate the impact of tritium on human and non-human biota. This paper has showed the extent of our existing knowledge about tritium and its potential effects, and will help to fill the knowledge gaps as we move the science forward in a field of both scientific and economic importance.
Dr Christian Grisolia, Overall Coordinator, TRANSAT Project
Ferreira, M. F., et al. (2023) Tritium: Its relevance, sources and impacts on non-human biota. Science of the Total Environment. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2023.162816.