The truth about tritium II

Readers set the record straight

I'm happy to stand corrected today on my recent piece regarding tritium and its many and varied uses.

I stated - incorrectly - that the civilian use of radioactive material was prohibited in the US. Not so. Indeed, the States are apparently awash with tritium, and more besides. I'm obliged to all those readers who put me straight, noting that a common use for the gas is in gunsights.

Most illuminating. Why, then, can we not ship the Traser GlowRing to the US? After all, it uses the same tritium-filled glass tube as many domestic US products.

Well, it's all a matter of licensing. Here's the situation regarding consumer products, according to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission:

Consumer products containing byproduct material that are used by the general public are exempted from licensing requirements only if the Commission determines that the products or types of uses do not constitute an unreasonable risk to the common defense or security or to public health and safety and the environment.

The Commission has a list of such exempt consumer product uses, which contains the following:

Certain Items Use (10 CFR 30.15)
Nuclear material is used in products such as electron tubes, self-luminous watches, or radiation measuring instruments for standardization or calibration purposes.

Self-Luminous Product Use (10 CFR 30.19)
Self-luminous product use includes the use of products such as gunsights and watches. These products contain tiny glass vials filled with a radioactive gas such as tritium (hydrogen-3).

Gas and Aerosol Detector Product Use (10 CFR 30.20)
Gas and aerosol detector product use of byproduct material can be found in products such as smoke detectors and chemical agent detectors. These products contain tiny foils that provide a steady source of ions in analytical chambers. The foils are coated with byproduct material such as americium-241 or nickel-63.


Since the GlowRing is nothing more than a "tiny glass vial filled with radioactive gas", what's the problem? A quick peruse of

Part 30.19

of the Commission's

Rules of general applicability to domestic licensing of byproduct material

reveals the following:



(c) The exemption in paragraph (a) [regarding the requirements for a licence] of this section does not apply to tritium, krypton-85, or promethium-147 used in products primarily for frivolous purposes or in toys or adornments.

So, you need a NRC license for any "frivolous" use of tritium, which effectively means that the US is not going to benefit from the GlowRing. If we can think of a less frivolous and presumably therefore less life-threatening use for the product (part of a gunsight perhaps?), we'll let you know. ®

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