Thursday, June 23, 2011

Dirty Nuclear Power Plants in US: Tipping Point


Stuart H. Smith

You could argue that support for the embattled nuclear industry has eroded to an international tipping point – that the ongoing crisis and devastation in Japan has sent the industry tumbling headlong toward extinction. Supporting evidence: The growing number of nations – including Germany, Switzerland and China – that have suspended expansions of their nuclear programs until safety risks can be fully assessed and deemed “acceptable,” or not.

Are we witnessing the early stages of a modern day “domino effect” that will ultimately bring down the global nuclear industry one country at a time? It’s not that hard to imagine in the current nuclear climate.

“The events in Japan…teach us that events deemed absolutely unlikely can happen,” German Chancellor Angela Merkeln recently said in Berlin. “We have a new situation and this has to be analyzed very thoroughly. …Safety stands above everything.”

So as countries in Asia and Europe take a deep breath and rethink the viability of nuclear power, the issue becomes whether the industry that brought us disasters like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island can stand up to a new level of international scrutiny. Well, let me just say if the current situation that’s unfolding here in the United States is any indication, the global nuclear industry is in for the fight of its life. And it may be a fight that simply can’t be won because of the dangers inherent in the generation of nuclear power.

The Associated Press just released an alarming investigative report that inches us closer to a suspension of U.S. nuclear operations until further safety reviews can be conducted. The most troubling finding (thus far) from the AP’s yearlong examination of safety issues is that three-quarters of the aging nuclear power plants here in the United States are leaking radioactive tritium into groundwater supplies from New Hampshire to Illinois to Arizona – in some cases, at concentrations hundreds of timesthe federal drinking water limit.

The tritium is leaking from deeply corroded underground networks of pipes – in some cases, up to a mile in length – that lie beneath nuclear power plants. Issues of groundwater contamination are exacerbated by the fact that: 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 significant cancer risk associated with these excessive tritium levels, which by the way are in violation of federal law, has health advocates and radiation experts calling for additional testing and comprehensive safety reviews of “aging” nuclear facilities.

The EPA plainly states that tritium levels in drinking water should measure no more than 20,000 picocuries per liter. At that level, 7 out of every 200,000 people who drink that water “for decades” would develop cancer. In my opinion, if even one person dies from drinking “government approved” water over the course of 20 or 30 years, the acceptable level is set too high. But that’s another argument for another day.

What the AP discovered when pouring over reams of records from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) should strike fear in us all – and give our elected officials political cover to introduce legislation that suspends the expansion of our nuclear program until further review. Here’s what the AP found in terms of tritium levels at a handful of nuclear sites around the country:

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.

According to the AP report, the highest known tritium readings were discovered at New Jersey’s Salem nuclear power plant in 2002 – and the radioactivity lingers to this day. From the AP report:

Tritium leaks from the spent fuel pool contaminated groundwater under the facility – located on an island in Delaware Bay – at a concentration of 15 million picocuries per liter. That’s 750 times the EPA drinking water limit. According to NRC records, the tritium readings last year still exceeded EPA drinking water standards.

The “leak problem” isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, according to the AP, the problem is only getting worse as nuclear plants and their miles of underground pipes age, corrode and crack: 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.

The ill-advised relicensing of aging plants is allowing pipes to corrode further, increasing exponentially the risk of worse and more frequent leaks. More from the AP report:

Last year, the Vermont Senate was so troubled by tritium leaks as high as 2.5 million picocuries per liter at the Vermont Yankee reactor in southern Vermont (125 times the EPA drinking-water standard) that it voted to block relicensing – a power that the Legislature holds in that state.

Activists placed a bogus ad on the Web to sell Vermont Yankee, calling it a “quaint Vermont fixer-upper from the last millennium” with “tasty, pre-tritiated drinking water.”

The gloating didn’t last. In March, the NRC granted the plant a 20-year license extension, despite the state opposition. Weeks ago, operator Entergy sued Vermont in federal court, challenging its authority to force the plant to close.

At 41-year-old Oyster Creek in southern New Jersey, the country’s oldest operating reactor, the latest tritium troubles started in April 2009, a week after it was relicensed for 20 more years. That’s when plant workers discovered tritium by chance in about 3,000 gallons of water that had leaked into a concrete vault housing electrical lines.

Although it’s being reported that none of the leaks is “known to have reached public water supplies,” it’s only a matter of time before that happens as pipes continue to age. The AP report reveals some near-misses:

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.

As Chancellor Merkeln stated when suspending Germany’s nuclear program, public safety must be Priority One. That becomes a tall order when any level of radiation exposure, however slight, increases the risk of cancer. And that’s not me talking, that warning comes directly from the National Academy of Sciences. Clearly, our federal government has to overcome some deep-seated pro-industry proclivities before the United States follows Germany’s lead. According to the AP:

…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.

Has the international community reached a nuclear power tipping point? I can’t say for sure, much depends on how the Fukushima disaster shakes out in the near term.Will the international community eventually reach a nuclear power tipping point? Of course it will, and that day may come much sooner than many of us think.

Read about the state of nuclear affairs in Europe here:

Catchup on how China is dealing with its nuclear program:

Here’s the full AP article on the pervasive tritium leaks:

Read about the five worst nuclear disasters in history here:

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