Radioactive leaks found at 75% of US nuke sites

Steam rises from cooling towers at Exelon Corp.'s nuclear plant in Byron, Ill., March 16, 2011.
AP Photo

BRACEVILLE, Ill. - 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.

Previously, the AP reported that regulators and industry have weakened safety standards for decades to keep the nation's commercial nuclear reactors operating within the rules. While NRC officials and plant operators argue that safety margins can be eased without peril, critics say these accommodations are inching the reactors closer to an accident.

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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. So far, federal and industry officials say, the tritium leaks pose no health threat.

But it's hard to know how far some leaks have traveled into groundwater. Tritium moves through soil quickly, and when it is detected it often indicates the presence of more powerful radioactive isotopes that are often spilled at the same time.

For example, cesium-137 turned up with tritium at the Fort Calhoun nuclear unit near Omaha, Neb., in 2007. Strontium-90 was discovered with tritium two years earlier at the Indian Point nuclear power complex, where two reactors operate 25 miles north of New York City.

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. More than a mile of piping, much of it encased in concrete, can lie beneath a reactor.

Tritium is relatively short-lived and penetrates the body weakly through the air compared to other radioactive contaminants. Each of the known releases has been less radioactive than a single X-ray.

The main health risk from tritium, though, would be in drinking water. 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.

Still, the NRC and industry consider the leaks a public relations problem, not a public health or accident threat, records and interviews show.

"The public health and safety impact of this is next to zero," said Tony Pietrangelo, chief nuclear officer of the industry's Nuclear Energy Institute. "This is a public confidence issue."

Leaks Are Prolific

Like rust under a car, corrosion has propagated for decades along the hard-to-reach, wet underbellies of the reactors -- generally built in a burst of construction during the 1960s and 1970s. As part of an investigation of aging problems at the country's nuclear reactors, the AP uncovered evidence that despite government and industry programs to bring the causes of such leaks under control, breaches have become more frequent and widespread.

There were 38 leaks from underground piping between 2000 and 2009, according to an industry document presented at a tritium conference. Nearly two-thirds of the leaks were reported over the latest five years.

Here are some examples:

  • At the three-unit Browns Ferry complex in Alabama, a valve was mistakenly left open in a storage tank during modifications over the years. When the tank was filled in April 2010 about 1,000 gallons of tritium-laden water poured onto the ground at a concentration of 2 million picocuries per liter. In drinking water, that would be 100 times higher than the EPA health standard.
  • At the LaSalle site west of Chicago, tritium-laden water was accidentally released from a storage tank in July 2010 at a concentration of 715,000 picocuries per liter -- 36 times the EPA standard.
  • The year before, 123,000 picocuries per liter were detected in a well near the turbine building at Peach Bottom west of Philadelphia -- six times the drinking water standard.
  • And in 2008, 7.5 million picocuries per liter leaked from underground piping at Quad Cities in western Illinois -- 375 times the EPA limit.