Radioactive Tritium Has Been Found At Other Nuclear Plants

01/21/10 5:51PM By John Dillon
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AP File Photo/Ed Bailey
Indian Point nuclear plant in New York.
(Host) Vermonters have been getting a lesson in radioactive tritium over the past two weeks because of the discovery of contamination at Vermont Yankee.

Vermonters are not alone.

Other Entergy reactors - including plants in Massachusetts and New York - also have similar leaks.

VPR's John Dillon has more.

(Dillon) The Indian Point nuclear plant is almost as old as Vermont Yankee. It sits on the Hudson River, about 35 miles north of New York City.

Like Vermont Yankee, Indian Point is owned by the Entergy Corporation. And, like the Vermont plant, at Indian Point a plume of radioactive tritium is migrating toward a nearby river.

(Musegaas) It's familiar. You know, we would urge the state of Vermont and the community there to really dig into this.

(Dillon) Phillip Musegaas is the Hudson River Program director for an environmental organization called Riverkeeper. The group is fighting Entergy's request to extend Indian Point's operating license for another 20 years.

(Musegaas) There's one large tritium plume coming from one spent fuel pool and there's a large plume of water contaminated with strontium 90 and cesium and some other things coming from a partially decommissioned reactor on the same site right next to it. And both of the pools were discovered over time to be moving through the ground water and leaching into the Hudson River.

(Dillon) Tritium was recently discovered in a monitoring well at Vermont Yankee, about 30 feet from the Connecticut River. High levels of the tritium were also found in a concrete vault containing pipes near the reactor building.

Tritium is an isotope of hydrogen that's formed in nuclear reactors. Musegaas has done some research using the Freedom of Information Act, and he says tritium has leaked from more than two dozen nuclear plants around the country, including several owned by Entergy.

These include the Entergy Fitzpatrick plant in western New York, the Pilgrim plant in Massachusetts and the Pallisades plant in Michigan. But the tritium problem is not confined to Entergy. Neil Sheehan is a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

(Sheehan) There has been tritium leakage, for instance, at Braidwood in Illinois which is owned by Exelon, Oyster Creek in New Jersey, which is owned by Exelon, the Salem plant which is owned by a company called PSEG, Public Service Electric and Gas. So it's not limited to any one particular company.

(Dillon) The NRC urged the industry to test groundwater for tritium after it was discovered at the Braidwood plant in Illinois. It was this voluntary testing program that turned up tritium at Vermont Yankee. Musegaas of the Riverkeeper group says the NRC is a weak watchdog on the issue.

(Musegaas) We're very frustrated that the NRC after all this tritium contamination was found, by my count at over 29 different plants around the country ... that the NRC still does not require nuclear plant operators to do groundwater testing at their nuclear plants. It's a voluntary initiative. The regulating agency doesn't require that they do that, and we find that outrageous.

(Dillon) The NRC says it's looking for ways to improve its oversight. And in Vermont, the state Health Department says it's stepped up testing of drinking water wells around the Vermont Yankee site.

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

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