[ RadSafe ] 'Exit' signs boost landfill radiation levels vs. registration vs. HFBR

Stewart Farber farbersa at optonline.net
Fri Apr 7 12:33:01 CDT 2006

Hi all,

Some musings for a Friday afternoon. Regarding the  interesting issue just 
posted by our good friend Norm Cohen of elevated tritium in leachate from 
waters near landfils around Pennsylvania, it is worth noting some things 
about tritium getting into the environment from self-luminous exit signs and 
some things to think about.

It is amusing in a way that anyone can go onto eBay and after doing a quick 
search on the words "luminous exit signs" find any number of aftermarket 
sellers from whom to buy used tritium luminous exit signs,  almost always 
without any required registration with the NRC.

If H-3 luminous exit signs are purchased new from a manufacturer, [for 
example, see: www.emergencylight.com/pdfs/tsl.pdf ] there are reporting 
requirements regarding who purchased the unit.

>From the above link as one example:

"The TSL series [a line from one manufacturer] requires that the 
manufacturer register the actual installation location of every 
self-luminous tritium exit sign sold......Manufacturer will require that 
included in the Purchase Order is the end user's address, phone number, and 
contact name. Manufacturer will then register the installation with Federal 
NRC as per required by law"

It is likely that luminous exit signs being tossed from buildings from 
around the US being demolished  [rather than being returned to the 
manufacturers as required by law] or used signs resold in aftermarket ways 
such as eBay represent an uncontrolled "release" as it were of tritium of 
some consequence.  Tritium in leachate from one landfill in PA at 9X EPA 
standards [total about 180,000 pCi/l]??-Impressive.

Does anyone have the figure on what the total release of H-3 in liquid 
discharges via cooling water was last year from the operations of LWRs in 
operation in the US?

Interesting comparison vs. groundwater H-3. The HUGE flap over tritium in 
groundwater from the High Flux Beam Reactor at BNL on LI which hit the news 
in late 1996 involved H-3 in groundwater due to a leak from the HFBR spent 
fuel pool. However, the H-3 in the plume from BNL did not affect  lab 
drinking water or local community drinking water, and closest to the HFBR 
was less than 3 x the level seen at the highest landfill noted in the 
article posted below. Yet this occurence of H-3 in a groundwater from BNL 
was used by activists and many politicians to garner huge local and national 
press coverage, criticize Brookhaven's and DOE's environmental stewardship, 
force out the director of the lab, and led to Sec. of Energy Pena 
terminating AUI's 50 year contract in mid-1997 to operate BNL because of the 
"disintegration of public trust" and supposed "lax environmental monitoring 

The HFBR was shut down in 1997 because of a tritium leak which resulted in 
offsite consequences less than seen from landfills in PA [and which is 
clearly happening in landfills all over the US, even if not documented due 
to lack of measurements], and a decision was made to decommission the HFBR 
in 1999 at substantial cost and effect on valuable research programs.

What is wrong with this picture? Why has eBay allowed the sale of used 
luminous exit signs to continue contrary to reporting laws? Why does a 
trivial environmental impact from an important research facility like the 
HFBR lead to the consequences and actions which resulted?

Why is the ability of nuclear facility institutions to communicate the 
important story of their facility benefits vs. risks with any balance or 
perspective to the public, media, and legislators so dismal a failure?

Stewart Farber, MS Public Health
203 367-0791
radproject at optonline.net

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Norm Cohen" <ncohen12 at comcast.net>

 'Exit' signs boost landfill radiation levels

Discarded green-glowing signs, containing radioactive tritium, contaminate
landfill water here and across state. Experts say levels don¹t pose health

By Ad Crable
Lancaster New Era

Published: Apr 05, 2006 1:50 PM EST

LANCASTER COUNTY, PA - When state inspectors began finding elevated levels
of radioactive tritium at landfills across Pennsylvania < including four in
or near Lancaster County < they were puzzled.

 After all, new regulations required all landfills to monitor incoming
trucks for any radioactive material.

The origin, they found to their surprise, was exit signs.
At three of the four landfills here, and at more than half the 54 solid
waste landfills in the state, the levels of tritium in water flowing from
the landfills exceeded what is allowed in drinking water.

Above-normal levels of tritium were found at the county¹s Frey Farm Landfill
in Manor Township; the Lanchester Landfill on the Lancaster-Chester border;
the Conestoga Landfill on the Lancaster-Berks border; and the Milton Grove
Demolition and Tire Recycling Center near Mount Joy.


All but the Frey Farm Landfill had tritium in leachate < the water that
flows down through waste < at levels exceeding drinking water standards.
That water is discharged into such waterways as the Conestoga River,
Susquehanna River and Little Chickies Creek.

State Department of Environmental Protection officials emphasize that the
levels of tritium found do not pose a health threat to residents here or
anywhere else in Pennsylvania because the tritium is vastly diluted before
reaching any drinking-water intakes.
³It truly would be a fraction² of original levels, says DEP spokesman Ron

Three-page letters to head off public alarm were recently sent by the DEP to
local officials whose municipalities host the landfills.

But the DEP wants to keep tritium out of landfills. So they searched for the
source of the radioactive gas, at high levels a cancer-causing agent
normally associated with the production of nuclear energy.

Tritium gas is typically used in the green exit signs placed in many
buildings so that the signs continue to glow in case of a power failure.
Red-lettered exit signs do not contain tritium.
State and federal laws require that unused exit signs be sent back to the
manufacturer, where the tritium is removed and recycled, or taken to one of
the two low-level radioactive waste landfills in the United States.

But the reality is that many, perhaps most, of these exit signs get thrown
out with the trash or taken to landfills when old buildings are demolished,
the DEP says.

When the signs reach landfills and are broken, the gas quickly finds its way
into water that flows through landfills.

Radiation monitoring at the landfills does not detect the incoming signs
because they give off beta radiation, which the detectors don¹t pick up,
Ruman said.

Federal drinking-water standards allow up to 20,000 picocuries per liter of
tritium. At the Conestoga Landfill, collected leachate had nine times the
maximum level allowed < the highest of any landfill in the state.

At Milton Grove, in Mount Joy Township, one sample found 29,300 picocuries.
At Lanchester, the highest level was 30,900. At Frey Farm, the highest level
found was 6,540. Leachate there is pumped to the nearby Lancaster Area Sewer
Authority treatment plant and discharged into Dry Run, a tributary of the
Susquehanna. Manor Township supervisors recently received a letter from the
DEP about the tritium finding at Frey Farm.

Supervisor John May said he was relieved that drinking water sources do not
seem to be affected. ³There¹s no way to remediate this, apparently,² he
said. ³I guess the idea is to stop the practice of throwing them away

The DEP has appealed to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to do a
better job of labeling and informing the public about the proper disposal of
exit signs containing tritium.
In addition, the DEP is now requiring the 54 landfills to begin testing for
tritium in leachate.
Tritium has had a high profile in the news lately. Unreported tritium leaks
at three nuclear plants in Illinois prompted the state attorney general to
sue Exelon Corp. over groundwater contamination.

Exelon launched a fleet-wide search for tritium leaks, including at its
Three Mile Island and Peach Bottom nuclear plants.

A leak of tritium into groundwater at TMI occurred last summer, but levels
never exceeded drinking-water standards and didn¹t reach the Susquehanna,
Exelon officials said.

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