In Which the Navy Lies, and Micturition Happens

The Navy is holding a meeting later this evening to unveil the plan finally selected for Site 12. The option chosen involves excavating soil to the depth of four feet, but not under the hardscape. The areas dug out will be backfilled with clean soil from an offsite location, and the soil removed will be screened and then disposed of in a special landfill. The Navy has not indicated where the contaminated soil will be trucked to. Work will begin in February of next year.

Cap’n Boysenberry and I made an interesting discovery yesterday which relates to cleanup on Treasure Island. At the last informational meeting, we are assured that there is “no radiological material anywhere on the Island.” This is a statement which does not leave much room for error. The Navy claims that the excavated soil will be screened for radiological contamination because this is standard in all situations like this.

The Cap’n and I are wondering if perhaps the Navy is also expecting the presence of radioactive material in the excavated soil, thanks to our adventures yesterday in Area 1.

The only potential contaminant listed for Area 1 is silver, due to onsite film processing. We, however, found radioactive material in Area 1, in the form of illuminated exit signs which contain tritium, or radioactive hydrogen. Tritium has a relatively short half life of approximately 12 years, and is not estimated to be harmful in low, contained doses. Indeed, the EPA allows trace amounts of it in drinking water!

The backs of the exit signs clearly list that they are radioactive, and are considered to be controlled objects. Transfer of the signs is prohibited except to properly trained individuals and institutions. The signs also may not be abandoned, which is clearly the case in Area 1. Tritium contamination has happened in other parts of the United States, primarily because tritium will form water when exposed to oxygen, which will lead to groundwater contamination. Disposal of the signs in landfills results in the creation of radioactive water. Breaking the tubes inside the signs will also cause exposure.

Tritium signs are constructed by enclosing the radioactive material inside small tubes. The tubes are coated in phosphor, which reacts by glowing when exposed to the radiation. The tubes are mounted behind glass, and the stencil for the sign is mounted in front of the glass. The glowing tubes will evenly illuminate the sign without an external power source. Self illuminating signs are highly useful as safety devices, because they can illuminate exits even in complete darkness.

Tritium is also used in the construction of nuclear weapons, where it is used as a trigger. In addition tritium can be found in nuclear reactors and a wide range of self illuminating devices. Government workers and people who work in nuclear facilities are exposed to tritium on a regular basis. Allegedly, tritium emits very weak radiation which is not capable of causing damage. But when tritium enters the bloodstream, as can happen when people drink tritium contaminated water, the substance will bind to other organic materials. Most tritium is expressed in the urine within one month, but not all of it. Therefore, bioaccumulation of the substance is an issue.

Tritium exposure increases the probability of getting cancer. It disperses easily into the soft tissues of the body, some of which are very sensitive to radiation. The most reliable test for tritium exposure is urinalysis…which makes me think it’s time for some cup peeing fun time! For now, I’ll be extra vigilant about flushing, lest my toilet start to glow.

What troubles me about this is not so much the existence of tritium, which appears to be relatively harmless. It is the fact that the Navy did not dispose of the signs properly, which could result in environmental risks. Furthermore, the Navy lied about radiological material on the Island, and it makes me wonder about other locations which may have tritium signs. The signs were abandoned where any individual could access them, and potentially release the tritium inside. The buildings on Treasure Island are explored by most of the residents, and many things inside and out are broken or damaged in the process. While some people may feel that the destruction of property is illegal, the fact is that it happens either way, but it doesn’t usually release radioactive substances into the environment.

For now the signs continue to glow ominously in the dark, waiting in case of emergency.