The truth about tritium
GlowRings and weapons of mass destruction
There has been a veritable explosion of correspondence over the last two weeks concerning the marvellous Traser GlowRing.
Many have expressed outrage that we are not able to ship the GlowRing overseas, demanding an explanation. Well, the facts are these: the GlowRing contains radioactive tritium gas. It's this which excites the phosphorescent coating inside the tube to produce the light. What it doesn't excite much are the US authorities, who forbid the civilian use of radioactive material. Hence the embargo.
However, before Cash'n'Carrion customers who've bought one of these beauties run screaming for the lead shielding, it's worth absorbing some background info, courtesy of the US Environmental Protection Agency:
Tritium was discovered by physicists Ernest Rutherford, M.L. Oliphant, and Paul Harteck, in 1934, when they bombarded deuterium (a hydrogen isotope with mass number 2) with high-energy deuterons (nuclei of deuterium atoms).
Where does tritium come from?
Tritium is produced naturally in the upper atmosphere when cosmic rays strike air molecules. Tritium is also produced during nuclear weapons explosions, as a byproduct in reactors producing electricity, and in special production reactors, where the isotope lithium-6 is bombarded to produce tritium.
What are the properties of tritium?
Tritium is a hydrogen atom that has 2 neutrons in the nucleus, in addition to its single proton, giving it an atomic weight near 3. Although tritium can be a gas, its most common form is in water, because, like non-radioactive hydrogen, radioactive tritium reacts with oxygen to form water. Tritium replaces one of the stable hydrogens in the water molecule, H2O, and is called tritiated water. Like H2O, tritiated water is colorless and odorless. Tritium has a half-life of 12.3 years and emits a very weak beta particle.
The key words here are "very weak" - the beta particles are unable to penetrate even thin layers of solid material and are easily stopped by human skin. A report by the Public Health Division of the Department of Human Services in Victoria, Australia on the effects of wearing a plastic watch containing tritium concluded that the health implications were negligible. Rather more prejudicial to physical well-being is the other common use of tritium, as outlined by the Federation of American Scientists:
Tritium is essential to the construction of boosted-fission nuclear weapons. A boosted weapon contains a mixture of deuterium and tritium, the gases being heated and compressed by the detonation of a plutonium or uranium device. The D-T mixture is heated to a temperature and pressure such that thermonuclear fusion occurs. This process releases a flood of 14 MeV neutrons which cause additional fissions in the device, greatly increasing its efficiency.
Nice one - it's good to see science getting the most bangs for the taxpayers' bucks. There is, however, one drawback to the use of tritium in nukes - that 12.3 year half-life. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission explains:
Tritium must be replenished in nuclear weapons routinely. The United States has not produced tritium since 1988, when the Department of Energy's (DOE's) production facility at the Savannah River site in South Carolina closed. Immediate tritium needs are being met by recycling tritium from dismantled U.S. nuclear weapons. According to DOE, resumption of tritium production is essential for maintaining the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.
Indeed. The US is currently looking at various options for the domestic production of tritium. It's a political hot potato, as this 1998 letter to Bill Clinton from Physicians for Social Responsibility, urging him not to use civilian facilities for the production of military tritium, proves.
We Brits, on the other hand, have been producing tritium at a civilian power station for years. Chapelcross in Scotland features four dual-purpose reactors which have produced some weapons-grade plutonium and still supply tritium to the UK's nuclear weapons programme. Not for much longer, though - the plant will close in 2005.
In conclusion, we here at the Reg are satisfied that the GlowRing presents no risk to health. It is conceivable, however, that were the Iraqis to get their hands on 1,000,000 GlowRings and carefully extract the tritium, they'd probably be only as matter of hours away from detonating their own nuke. It's a chilling thought. Our Cash'n'Carrion operatives have been placed on the highest state of alert and have been advised to get on the red telephone immediately should such an order come through from Baghdad. ®