Nuke plant leaks bring aging plants into question

Tuesday, April 13, 2010 @ 10:04 PM gHale

Radioactive tritium, a carcinogen discovered in potentially dangerous levels in groundwater at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, has now tainted at least 27 of the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors.

The question remains as to how it is escaping from the aging nuclear plants.

The leaks, emanating from deteriorating underground pipes, come as the nuclear industry is seeking and obtaining federal license renewals, casting itself as a clean and green alternative to power plants that burn fossil fuels.

Tritium, found in nature in tiny amounts and a product of nuclear fission, can cause cancer if ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin in large amounts.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said new tests at a monitoring well on Vermont Yankee’s site in Vernon registered 70,500 picocuries per liter, more than three times the federal safety standard of 20,000 picocuries per liter.

That is the highest reading yet at the Vermont Yankee plant. Officials of New Orleans-based Entergy Corp., which owns the plant in Vernon, Vt., have admitted misleading state regulators and lawmakers by saying the plant did not have the kind of underground pipes that could leak tritium into groundwater.

Vermont Yankee is just the latest of dozens of U.S. nuclear plants, most of which were built in the 1960s and ’70s, to be leaking tritium.

In the 1990s, the Braidwood nuclear station in Illinois was leaking millions of gallons of tritium-laced water, some of which contaminated residential water wells. Plant owner Exelon Corp. ended up paying for a new municipal water system.

After Braidwood, the nuclear industry stepped up voluntary checking for tritium in groundwater at plants around the country, testing that revealed the Vermont Yankee problem, plant officials said.

In New Jersey last year, there was a tritium leak reported for a second time at the Oyster Creek plant in Ocean County, just days after Exelon won NRC approval for a 20-year license extension there. The Pilgrim plant in Plymouth, Mass., like Vermont Yankee, owned by Entergy, reported low levels of tritium on the ground in 2007. As a result of the Vermont leak, a Plymouth-area citizens group is demanding more test wells at the Massachusetts plant.

Leaks have occurred at least 27 of the nation’s 104 commercial reactors at 65 plant sites, said NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan. He said the list likely does not include every plant where tritium has leaked.

The leaks have several causes; underground pipes corroding and the leaking of spent fuel storage pools are the most common. Officials have not yet found the source of the leak or leaks at Vermont Yankee; at Oyster Creek, corroded underground pipes were the culprit.

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