Scientists have called for a coordinated international effort to fully assess the environmental impacts of tritium ahead of a significant expected rise in its global production.
A radioactive isotope of hydrogen, tritium is a by-product of the nuclear industry and its presence is predicted to grow exponentially with nuclear increasingly seen as being key to the global low carbon economy.
That will result in many nations having to develop long-term strategies to manage tritiated radioactive waste and develop tools to both assess and address its environmental impact.
However, writing in the journal Science of the Total Environment, scientists from the UK and France say its full potential impact is as yet unknown with studies to this point focusing predominantly on species of marine bivalves, fish and rodents.
Those studies have also centred on laboratory-based experiments and often been carried out using high concentrations of tritium unlikely to be found in the wider environment.
There has also been little consideration given to how a wide range of organisms uptake tritium through various routes, and whether they in turn pose sustained threats to human health through the food chain.
The researchers also say the tritium associated with steel and cement particles, arising from the decommissioning or dismantling of nuclear reactors, needs exploring further.
The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Plymouth and The French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), who have collaborated for many years on studies assessing the impact of radioactive and chemical compounds in the environment.
In their conclusion, they say a coordinated and consistent focus is urgently needed to develop the evidence base required to minimise tritium’s impact on everything from individual species to the environment as a whole.