Scientists Look For Source Of Radioactive Water

01/12/10 7:34AM By John Dillon
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AP Photo/Ralph Wilson

(Host) Vermont Yankee has assigned a team of scientists and technicians to look for the source of radioactive water discovered recently in a monitoring well.

Lawmakers are also asking questions about the possible leak. They want to know if the contamination will add to the cost of decommissioning the plant.

VPR's John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Operators of nuclear plants around the country have been on the watch for a radioactive substance called tritium.

Tritium is an isotope of hydrogen. It's frequently found in water that's been exposed to nuclear reactors.

Last week, Yankee announced that tritium was discovered in a monitoring well located about 30 feet from the Connecticut River. The concentrations are below federal safety limits. Yankee spokesman Rob Williams says an investigative team of chemists, engineers and groundwater experts is will now determine what caused the contamination.

(Williams) "This is going to be a project where we take it very methodically. We want to make sure that our investigation into where this is coming from is done safely, but also to get a thorough result from this process." 

(Dillon) Tritium leaks have occurred at more than a dozen nuclear power plants. But Yankee officials told a legislative oversight panel last year that the plant had no underground pipes that could carry contaminated water. A plant engineer said in an email - quote - "We consider this issue closed."

Yankee spokesman Williams says the email was the result of miscommunication. And lawmakers don't consider the issue closed. The legislature may vote this year on whether to extend Yankee's license for another 20 years. A major concern is the cost of decommissioning the plant. The chairman of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee says he's asked the legislature's consultants to examine the impact of the tritium discovery. Tony Klein is an East Montpelier Democrat.

(Klein) "You're talking about a material you cannot separate out from the water once it gets in there because it has similar molecular qualities. And not only has it already migrated to the groundwater under the plant but I'm quite worried about it migrating towards - and it will -  towards the Connecticut River."

(Dillon) Klein says the tritium leak adds to the uncertainty and the expense of cleaning up the site.

(Klein) "It's almost like the mishap a month club here. And as it continues to operate, as it gets older and older and older we're going to see more mishap and more mishap and mishap. It's only logical that that happens."

(Dillon) The Nuclear Regulatory Commission also wants Yankee to look for the source of the tritium.

NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said the plant may dig additional monitoring wells as officials try to determine if the material is moving toward the Connecticut River. He says the tritium concentrations found so far are relatively low.

(Sheehan) "One of the things to keep in mind even if some contamination were to get off site, the amounts here would be so low, and the dilution factor so incredible in the river, that you wouldn't even be able to detect the contamination." 

(Dillon) Yankee and the NRC said one of the first places to look for the source of the tritium is a piece of equipment called the "condensate storage tank." The tank holds water that has circulated through the reactor that may have become contaminated by the nuclear process.

For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier.

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