Corroding underground pipes are leaking radioactive substances at most U.S. nuclear sites, thanks largely to a sympathetic relationship between the nuclear industry and its regulators, an investigation by the Associated Press has found.
“Radioactive tritium has leaked from three-quarters of U.S. commercial nuclear power sites, often into groundwater from corroded, buried piping,” the AP reports after a year-long examination of the state of the nation’s aging nuclear facilities.
Worse, it said, “the number and severity of the leaks has been escalating, even as federal regulators extend the licenses of more reactors across the U.S.”
48 of 65 Sites Show Leaks
Tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, has leaked from “at least 48” of 65 sites, which supply about 19 percent of the nation’s electricity, according to U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission records reviewed by the news service.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission
|New Jersey’s Salem 2 nuclear power plant remained offline Tuesday due to a problem with a reactor coolant pump. The cause is under investigation. The plant also has had one of the highest known tritium readings.|
Leaks from “at least 37” of those facilities contained concentrations exceeding federal standards—sometimes, by hundreds of times, the AP said.
Some leaks have migrated offsite; none is known to have reached public water supplies.
At two sites in Illinois and one in Minnesota, leaks have contaminated drinking wells of nearby homes, but not at levels exceeding the federal standard. In New Jersey, tritium has leaked into an aquifer and a discharge canal feeding a bay on the Atlantic Ocean, according to AP.
No Threat, Industry Says
“Corrosion has occurred for decades along the hard-to-reach, wet underbellies of the reactors,” most of which were built in the 1960s and 1970s, the news service reported. One industry document cited 38 leaks from underground piping between 2000 and 2009—nearly two-thirds of them in the last five years.
Federal and industry officials say the tritium leaks pose no health or safety threat. Tony Pietrangelo, chief nuclear officer of the industry’s Nuclear Energy Institute, told the AP that the impacts were “next to zero.”
Some independent engineers, however, have expressed concern about the reliability of emergency safety systems at the sites’ 104 nuclear reactors. Some leaks have gone undetected for years, AP reported.
Since much of the pipe is inaccessible and carries cooling water, there is a potential for a meltdown if the pipes leak, nuclear engineer Bill Corcoran told the AP.
And Mario Bonaca, a former member of the NRC’s advisory committee on Reactor Safeguards, said: “Any leak is a problem because you have the leak itself—but it also says something about the piping. Evidently something has to be done.”
Last year, an NRC taskforce on tritium leaks found no danger to public health but said that the leaks had created “communications” challenges and had “impacted public confidence.”
Other Components at Risk
The rust also attacks other buried components, including electrical cables that carry signals to control operations, the AP noted.
Many pipes and tanks have been patched, and contaminated soil and water have been removed in some places.
The Union of Concerned Scientists reported in September that the U.S. nuclear industry had recorded more than 400 radioactive leaks of all kinds of substances since the industry began in the 1960s.
AP National Writer Jeff Donn also noted that when the current generation of reactors was built in the 1960s and 1970s, the industry and regulators said the facilities had a 40-year lifespan. Now, Donn reports, regulators say the facilities have “no inherent life span, and can run for up to a century.”
Donn also reports that that the relicensing process “often lacks fully independent safety reviews. Records show that paperwork of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission sometimes matches word-for-word the language used in a plant operator’s application.”
Relicensing “relies heavily on such paperwork, with very little onsite inspection and verification,” he adds.
So far, Donn reports, 66 reactors have been approved for 20-year extensions to their original 40-year licenses, with 16 more extensions pending.
NRC Chief Reacts
Asked Tuesday to comment on the AP reports, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko told CBS News:
“Well, first and foremost, this is really not an acceptable situation for any nuclear power plant to have this kind of leaking tritium. So we’re working with all of the plants that do, to make sure they either repair the piping systems or remediate the area to get rid of the ground water in the most effective and most safe way.
“But fundamentally, it’s not something where the public is really being threatened from a health standpoint. It’s really, right now, just more of a challenge on the reactor sites, and has the potential, if it’s not mitigated, to ultimately have some very low-level impacts off the site. But, we’re comfortable that the right steps are being taken to prevent that from ever happening.”