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Sales of Tritium: Good Business or Safety Concern?

A NEAT little industry" is how an official at Ontario Hydro, the provincially owned electric utility, describes the tritium sign business. "An industry to stay out of," says a leading environmentalist.

The Ontario government, now controlled by the left-of-center New Democratic Party, is reviewing the right to sell radioactive tritium gas. Tritium is a byproduct of Ontario's nuclear power plants; it is used commercially to make signs that glow in the dark for airports and highways. Its military use is to increase the power of a hydrogen bomb.

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"We have sufficient concerns to undertake a complete review of the policy," said Anne Creighton, a spokeswoman for Ontario's Ministry of Energy.

There have been two sales of tritium gas so far this year, one to a United States firm, Shield Source Inc., the other to the Canadian subsidiary of a British firm, Saunders Roe. Each company purchased 5 grams of tritium, at a cost of about $30,000 (Canadian; US$26,000) a gram, according to an Ontario Hydro official.

Shield Source has built a plant at Peterborough, Ontario, an hour from Toronto; Saunders Roe has built a plant in Pembroke, Ontario, outside Ottawa. Both will manufacture road signs. "They are mainly for sale in Canada and America," said a spokesman at the Saunders Roe plant. "The factory was set up here because of the availability of the raw material, tritium."

Environmentalists argue there should be no tritium sales. "Breaking up hazardous radioactive material into small consumer-sized packages is not the best way to deal with radioactive waste," says Norman Rubin, head of Energy Probe in Toronto.

Ontario Hydro says it is the largest producer of commercial tritium in the world. "We don't allow the export of tritium except to government agencies working on nuclear fusion," says Ronald Oberth of Ontario Hydro. "That is why these two firms have had to set up manufacturing plants here."

Ontario Hydro produces 2,500 grams of tritium a year as a byproduct at its giant Darlington nuclear generating plant outside Toronto. Darlington produces as much power as the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, 1,800 megawatts. That is with only two of four planned generators in operation; all four will working by 1992.

A small amount of tritium goes a long way. One gram of tritium contains 10,000 curies. It takes between 20 and 30 curies to put luminescent lettering on a road sign. The gas is also used to light up runways and in reflective safety lights in aircraft aisles.