Canadian Manufacturing

Ontario could export high-demand tritium to US

US government is studying province’s tritium supply

TORONTO—The US government is looking at importing an Ontario resource that can be used to detect nuclear bombs.

Ontario Power Generation extracts tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, from heavy waters at several of its CANDU nuclear reactors.

Tritium is used in products such as self-illuminating signs and glow-in-the-dark hands on watches. The radioactive decay of tritium produces helium 3, which is used to manufacture nuclear bomb scanners.

The US Department of Homeland Security has launched a feasibility study on the costs and logistics of potentially importing Ontario’s supply of tritium to fill a shortage south of the border.

In the US, total available supply of helium 3 is just 47,600 litres, shy of the nation’s expected 76,3300-litre demand.

The department has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into new scanners to detect plutonium or uranium in shipping containers. But it had to stop deploying them due to a shortage of helium 3.

Meanwhile, OPG extracts 11,400 litres of tritium a year from a total of16 reactors at its Darlington, Pickering and Kincardine stations.

New Brunswick and Quebec also have CANDU reactors, but only Ontario has the technology to separate tritium from the water.

Some of the tritium is sold to manufacturers in Ontario, where it’s used in items such as exit signs and landing strip lights in remote areas. OPG ships it by vehicle in encased containers and the rest is stored at the Darlington facility.

Ted Gruetzner, an OPG spokesperson, said it’s too soon to speculate what kind of revenues it could see if it were to start exporting tritium to the US.

“There are a lot of questions that will have to be answered before either party goes ahead with it. Can we technically do it? What are the transportation and regulatory issues? All those things will need to be looked at,” he said.

Regulatory hurdles could be small, since Ontario already ships medical isotopes to the US.

A US official said the government is looking at other suppliers besides Canada, but wouldn’t say where.

It started looking for new sources of helium 3 from other countries, including Canada, in 2008 when the estimated magnitude of the shortage became clear, according to Dr. William Brinkman, director of the Office of Science for the US Department of Energy.

The US was also a major supplier of helium 3 in support of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s safeguard efforts.

“In the case of international safeguards, it is DOE’s view that the shortage should not be viewed as just a US problem, but rather one that will require international co-operation to solve,” he said in a statement last April before a US House committee.

The study is due in April.

With files from the Canadian Press
Photo courtesy of OPG: The Darlington facility seperates and stores tritium, which is in high demand south of the border.

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