BRACEVILLE, Ill. (AP) – Radioactive tritium has leaked from three-quarters of U.S. commercial nuclear power sites, often into groundwater from corroded, buried piping, an Associated Press investigation shows.
The number and severity of the leaks has been escalating, even as federal regulators extend the licenses of more and more reactors across the nation.
Tritium, which is a radioactive form of hydrogen, has leaked from at least 48 of 65 sites, according to U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission records reviewed as part of the AP’s yearlong examination of safety issues at aging nuclear power plants. Leaks from at least 37 of those facilities contained concentrations exceeding the federal drinking water standard – sometimes at hundreds of times the limit.
While most leaks have been found within plant boundaries, some have migrated offsite. But none is known to have reached public water supplies.
At three sites – two in Illinois and one in Minnesota – leaks have contaminated drinking wells of nearby homes, the records show, but not at levels violating the drinking water standard. At a fourth site, in New Jersey, tritium has leaked into an aquifer and a discharge canal feeding picturesque Barnegat Bay off the Atlantic Ocean.
Any exposure to radioactivity, no matter how slight, boosts cancer risk, according to the National Academy of Sciences. Federal regulators set a limit for how much tritium is allowed in drinking water, where this contaminant poses its main health risk. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says tritium should measure no more than 20,000 picocuries per liter in drinking water. The agency estimates seven of 200,000 people who drink such water for decades would develop cancer.
The tritium leaks also have spurred doubts among independent engineers about the reliability of emergency safety systems at the 104 nuclear reactors situated on the 65 sites. That’s partly because some of the leaky underground pipes carry water meant to cool a reactor in an emergency shutdown and to prevent a meltdown. Fast moving, tritium can indicate the presence of more powerful radioactive isotopes, like cesium-137 and strontium-90.
So far, federal and industry officials say, the tritium leaks pose no health or safety threat. Tony Pietrangelo, chief nuclear officer of the industry’s Nuclear Energy Institute, said impacts are “next to zero.”
EAST COAST ISSUES
One of the highest known tritium readings was discovered in 2002 at the Salem nuclear plant in Lower Alloways Creek Township, N.J. Tritium leaks from the spent fuel pool contaminated groundwater under the facility – located on an island in Delaware Bay – at a concentration of 15 million picocuries per liter. That’s 750 times the EPA drinking water limit. According to NRC records, the tritium readings last year still exceeded EPA drinking water standards.
And tritium found separately in an onsite storm drain system measured 1 million picocuries per liter in April 2010.
Also last year, the operator, PSEG Nuclear, discovered 680 feet of corroded, buried pipe that is supposed to carry cooling water to Salem Unit 1 in an accident, according to an NRC report. Some had worn down to a quarter of its minimum required thickness, though no leaks were found. The piping was dug up and replaced.
The operator had not visually inspected the piping – the surest way to find corrosion- since the reactor went on line in 1977, according to the NRC. PSEG Nuclear was found to be in violation of NRC rules because it hadn’t even tested the piping since 1988.
Last year, the Vermont Senate was so troubled by tritium leaks as high as 2.5 million picocuries per liter at the Vermont Yankee reactor in southern Vermont (125 times the EPA drinking-water standard) that it voted to block relicensing – a power that the Legislature holds in that state.
In March, the NRC granted the plant a 20-year license extension, despite the state opposition. Weeks ago, operator Entergy sued Vermont in federal court, challenging its authority to force the plant to close.
At 41-year-old Oyster Creek in southern New Jersey, the country’s oldest operating reactor, the latest tritium troubles started in April 2009, a week after it was relicensed for 20 more years. That’s when plant workers discovered tritium by chance in about 3,000 gallons of water that had leaked into a concrete vault housing electrical lines.
Since then, workers have found leaking tritium three more times at concentrations up to 10.8 million picocuries per liter – 540 times the EPA’s drinking water limit – according to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. None has been directly measured in drinking water, but it has been found in an aquifer and in a canal discharging into nearby Barnegat Bay, a popular spot for swimming, boating and fishing.