Assurances about tritium leaks not convincing

May 1, 2009

It's been a crisis month for Exelon since federal regulators jumped the gun and relicensed the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in Lacey until 2029. Failure of a main transformer led to the shutdown of the reactor earlier this week. That followed the recent discovery of high levels of radioactive tritium contamination at the site.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff have tracked the tritium leak to two burst pipes from the reactor. Concentrations of radioactive tritium are up to 300 times the allowable levels in four test wells at the site. This raises alarm about the plant's aging management program, which was the basis of the relicensing that is supposed to prevent this sort of dangerous mishap.
Despite assurances from Oyster Creek spokespeople that tritium has not traveled off company grounds, it has entered the water table. Water flows, and at Oyster Creek it will eventually empty into Barnegat Bay, where the state this week announced a huge reseeding program of the oyster beds.
Plant officials gave the same kind of assurances when radioactive Cesium 137 was found on leaf samples in 2006. They said it was confined to company property, but the area in question was a plot owned by Exelon across Route 9. So the Cesium 137, which stays radioactive for many years, had reached the community by crossing a public right of way.
We still do not know the outcome of an incident in October when the state Department of Environmental Protection considered a fine against Exelon for failure to report tritium in storm drains. The plant management was content to say it was probably a mistake made by laboratory workers. But, as Dr. Jill Lipoti of the state Department of Environmental Protection's Bureau of Nuclear Engineering made clear, we will never know if a lab error was made or not. Workers dumped the water that had been tested before further analysis could be done.
Tritium leaks at Oyster Creek are a serious issue for the public. Contrary to reassuring words, tritium, though low energy, is highly radioactive and has a half life of more than 12 years. Low-energy beta particles, like those emitted by tritium, can cause considerable harm. Tritiated water is handled by the body like regular water, becoming part of the cells. It easily crosses the placental barrier, with risk of spontaneous abortion, stillbirth, congenital malformation and childhood diseases.
Exelon's record for handling tritium leaks in the past at its other nuclear power stations is horrible. At the Braidwood plant in Illinois, tritium leaked from the site for nine years and state officials weren't notified until a citizen noticed and tested a pool of water in his backyard. The test came back positive for tritium, and the state of Illinois subsequently sued Exelon.
After the gross violation of public safety standards at Braidwood, Exelon had to begin testing for tritium leaks at its other plants. At Dresden, tritium was found in offsite wells 500 times allowable standards. At Exelon's Byron Plant in Illinois, tritium levels were more than four times the federal standards in vaults along pipes that transport waste.
Each day Oyster Creek operates, the public is exposed to continuous doses of low-level radiation. Of all nuclear plants nationwide, Oyster Creek's airborne emissions for Strontium 90 are highest, and they are the second highest for airborne Strontium 89. The plant also emits the second-highest airborne levels of Barium 140. All are radioactive.
The NRC says these discharges are a normal part of routine nuclear operation, and are below acceptable levels for public health. This claim is dead wrong. The Bier VII report issued by the National Academy of Sciences stated there are no safe levels of exposure to continuous levels of low-level radiation. Also, the so-called allowable standards are set for the most robust: a healthy 35-year-old male. The "allowable" doses do not protect the most vulnerable: women, children, infants and the developing fetus.
These emergency events, the breakdown of a 30-year-old second-hand transformer and bursting pipes that are spewing radioactive waste into the groundwater, prove that the NRC relicensed this plant without an effective aging management program in place. The fundamental problem at Oyster Creek is age-related degradation combined with inadequate regulatory oversight. This spells disaster for the public. It's a situation that demands congressional investigation, intervention and a firm resolve to overhaul a dysfunctional NRC.