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AP: Radioactive tritium leaks found at 48 US nuke sites


'You got pipes that have been buried underground for 30 or 40 years, and they've never been inspected,' whistleblower says

-By Jeff Donn

June 21, 2011- 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.

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. 

FULL STORY HERE: