Another fly lands in the nuclear ointment | Wis.Community

Another fly lands in the nuclear ointment


Just when the nuclear industry is doing such a great job of selling its "renaissance" as the way to fight climate change, along comes another irritating little problem.

As my mother used to say, there's always something to take the joy out of life.

This time it's a tritium leak at a Vermont plant -- something that's already happened in Wisconsin at Point Beach and Kewaunee, as noted in the map above. The AP reports:

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — 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 — raising concerns about how it is escaping from the aging nuclear plants...

Tritium, found in nature in tiny amounts and a product of nuclear fusion, has been linked to cancer if ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin in large amounts.

Is it anything to be concerned about? As is often the case when there's a lot of money at stake, it depends upon who you ask.

When tritium was found near the Kewaunee plant in August 2006, the Journal Sentinel soft-peddled it. This was the lede:

The release of tritium underneath the Kewaunee nuclear plant doesn't pose a health risk because the radioactive substance hasn't been found in drinking water, federal nuclear regulators said.

The radioactive isotope of hydrogen was found in four groundwater samples taken from narrow shafts underneath the nuclear plant, located in the Kewaunee County Town of Carlton, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said in a report...

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Dominion Resources Inc., which owns Kewaunee, stressed that no unsafe levels of tritium have been detected at monitoring… Both Kewaunee and Point Beach do regular testing and have been in compliance with federal standards that permit tritium to be released at low levels.

Others don't treat it so lightly.The Burlington VT Free Press reports:

Nuclear industry advocates say worries about tritium leaks can be overblown. “It depends on the level and where it gets to,” said Steve Kerekes, a Washington, D.C., spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute. “If it’s isolated, it’s not going to be an issue. Not every operating issue rises to the level of being a safety issue.”

Critics disagree. They note that tritium leaks are usually followed by the discovery of other, slower-moving but more dangerous radioactive agents like strontium-90 and cobalt-60, which have longer half-lives than tritium. Cobalt-60 was also found in the Vermont Yankee storage trench.

“It can cause damage for 120 years,” Gunter said of tritium. “If you ingest it or inhale it at close range, it can begin to saturate down to your DNA and cause cancer and birth defects.”

No radiation exposure is safe exposure, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research says"

Plant operators and the NRC initially dismissed public concerns about leaks, saying that tritium levels measured offsite by the plant operators were well below the EPA drinking water standard of 20,000 picocuries per liter4 and were “safe”5 even though all radiation protection regulations and the most recent report of the National Academies (commonly known as the BEIR VII report)6 concluded that the hypothesis that best fits the facts is that every exposure to radiation produces a corresponding cancer risk – low exposures produce low risk, and that risk increases with exposure. There is no threshold below which there is zero risk.

The EPA's method of expressing this reality is to set a Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) which corresponds to zero health risk. The EPA value for MCLG for all radionuclides, including tritium, is zero.

Here's a Nukewatch report on the Wisconsin plants:

In 1975, Point Beach Unit 1 leaked approximately 10,000 gallons of radioactively-contaminated water after a steam tube ruptured. The water flowed into a retention pond and from the pond into groundwater. In 1997, another steam tube in the same reactor spilled another 10,000 gallons of radioactively-contaminated water that ran eventually into Lake Michigan. That year, Unit 2 had a leaking discharge pipe which also contaminated a stream and Lake Michigan.

In 2006, Kewaunee workers found tritium in the groundwater below the site. The NRC said the radiation had infiltrated narrow shafts beneath two buildings. The leak rate was thought to be one gallon every five minutes.

So, as a proposal to make it much easier to build a new nuclear reactor works moves along the greased skids of the Wisconsin Legislature, it's not too late to speak up. Details here.


February 3, 2010 - 1:22pm