Welcome to France
By Linda Pentz Gunter
The headline — Police probe opened into rumours of unsafe tap water in Paris — raised hopes that nuclear operators might finally be held accountable for what appears to be routine radioactive contamination of drinking water in France.
News stories had circulated after a French radiological testing laboratory published findings on June 17, 2019, that more than six million French residents were drinking water contaminated with tritium released by the country’s nuclear power plants and other nuclear installations.
The laboratory — L’association pour le contrôle de la radioactivité dans l’Ouest or ACRO — raised the alarm because, it said, the presence of tritium implied there could be other radioactive isotopes in the water as well. None of the tritium levels they measured on this occasion, exceeded those French health authorities have established as “safe”, but research in the past has found higher levels, especially in groundwater, rivers and streams.
That “acceptable” level is 100 Becquerels per liter, not quite as arbitrary as the shocking 10,000 Bq/L level set by the World Health Organization, in thrall to the nuclear power-promoting International Atomic Energy Agency through a 1959 agreement.
The cities affected included Paris and its suburbs, and other large population areas in the Loire and Vienne regions of France such Orléans, Tours and Nantes.
Unsurprisingly, the story spread like wildfire, especially across social media, causing alarm among residents in the communities cited — 268 in all.
But the police investigation in Paris was not of EDF, the country’s chief nuclear facility operator. It was to root out fear-mongering purveyors of “fake news” among the citizenry who, according to the French state, were unnecessarily spreading panic among the populace by claiming drinking water containing tritium is unsafe.
The independent radiological testing lab CRIIRAD (Commission for Independent Research and Information on Radioactivity) denounced what it called the “trivialization of tritium contamination” and warned French citizens not to be lulled by the 100 Bq/L levels set by the authorities and especially not by the WHO’s 10,000 Bq/L standard. CRIIRAD said the level for tritium in drinking water should be set between 10 and 30 Bq/L.
For context, in our report, Leak First, Fix Later, we noted that the “naturally occurring” levels of tritium found in surface and groundwater is, at its highest, 1 Bq/l. Therefore, tritium is almost non-existent in water in nature.
To CRIIRAD, it is therefore all the more outrageous that that the levels for radiological contamination in France are set at “more than 100 times higher than the maximum allowed for chemical carcinogens.”
Tritium is radioactive hydrogen and is therefore assimilated by all living things as water. It has a half life of 12.3 years. It is produced in huge quantities in nuclear reactor cores, then released into the environment as a gas or in liquid discharges. Tritium cannot be filtered out of water and tritium released into the air can return in rainfall. All nuclear power plants release tritium, and nuclear reprocessing facilities — such as the one at La Hague on the French north coast — release even larger amounts.
These releases, including into rivers, streams and the sea, are regulated by authorities but, as CRIIRAD points out, at levels that are not so much safe as unavoidable, effectively granting nuclear installations “permission to pollute.”
“The liquid and atmospheric releases of tritium cause contamination of the air, water, the aquatic and terrestrial environment and the food chain,” wrote CRIIRAD in a statement put out after the tritiated drinking water news broke.
When rumors began to fly that drinking tap water had been banned, authorities quickly stepped in to “reassure” people that the levels of tritium in the water — already not actually safe according to CRIIRAD — were of no concern.
The criminality of nuclear plants across France releasing huge amounts of tritium into the environment was quickly turned on its head. Instead, in a sinister but not entirely unpredictable turn of events, given that France is a nuclear state, it would be ordinary citizens who would be committing a “crime” if they were found to be “publicizing, spreading and reproducing false information intended to cause public disorder,” according to an AFP article.
In reality, there was genuine cause for concern. ACRO had found levels of tritium in drinking water at 30 Bq/L on five occasions, then at 55 Bq/L and finally at 310 Bq/L in the Loire river.
But drinking tritiated water is not the end of the story — or the danger. Even though tritiated water may pass through the human body in about 10 days, about 10% of it binds organically inside the body. Organically bound tritium remains in the body for far longer than free tritium. According to CRIIRAD, this means that beta radiation from tritium can endure inside the body for years, causing chromosomal mutations, cancers and genetic mutations.
Tritium also binds organically to organisms in the environment such as aquatic plants present in rivers and streams into which nuclear facilities release tritiated water, or crops irrigated using water contaminated with tritium. These are in turn ingested by animals and humans — setting in motion tritium’s journey up the food chain.
The CRIIRAD statement notes the systematic downplaying of these risks by the nuclear safety regulator and other French governmental authorities.
This was never more apparent than during a law suit brought by CRIIRAD, the Sortir du nucléaire network, Stop Nucléaire 26-07 and FRAPNA Drôme in 2013 after the huge multi-unit Tricastin nuclear site leaked tritium into the groundwater at levels as high as 700 Bq/L.
EDF, Tricastin’s operator, claimed then that “tritium is a completely harmless radioactive isotope.”
Of course there is no such thing as a “safe dose.” Even the august and certainly not anti-nuclear National Academy of Sciences agrees. And as CRIIRAD points out, every dose increases the risk. “Since all living matter is made up of hydrogen atoms, a part of any tritium released will eventually be found in the cells of living organisms, including in the DNA, creating long-term internal irradiation that increases cancer risks (among others),” said the lab.
What of course got forgotten in all the dismissal and downplay by authorities — and in the attempts to criminalize those who sounded the alarm — is that some members of the population are more vulnerable than others when it comes to radiation exposure.
Even while a daily dose of tritiated drinking water is not good for anyone, it is far more dangerous for babies and young children and for women, especially pregnant women. But those already bad standards don’t take the most vulnerable into account.
So how did the 100 BQ/L limit come about? It is no surprise to learn that it was the influence of Euratom (no conflict there) that boosted it that high.
After CRIIRAD had pushed for a 10 Bq/L limit before the European Parliament in 2012-2013, that body settled on a 20 Bq/L limit. But its decision was swept aside after “experts” at Euratom insisted on the 100 Bq/L limit. That, among other issues, is what spurred a Europe-wide movement to abolish the Euratom Treaty.
Clearly, what should have happened in France is an investigation into the cause and source of the tritium in drinking water. Instead, there was a propaganda campaign to neutralize concern and vilify those who sounded the alarm on safety. In Nuclear France, it’s never plus ça change, but always la même chose.
Headline photo by Rasheed Siddiqui for Creative Commons.
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