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Tritium Leak Poses Question for Integrity of NRC

by Susan Smallheer

BRATTLEBORO - A former Nuclear Regulatory Commission official now working for the Union of Concerned Scientists said that the NRC was a "lapdog" of the nuclear industry and wasn't enforcing its own regulations when it came to "unmonitored and uncontrolled" radioactive tritium leaks.

David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer who at one time was a member of the Vermont Public Oversight Panel, told the annual meeting of the New England Coalition late Saturday that the NRC could have fined Entergy Nuclear $140,000 a day for every day it leaked tritium and other radioactive substances into the groundwater and ground, but it didn't.

Lochbaum said based on Entergy's own estimate of 90 days of uncontrolled and unmonitored releases, the NRC could have fined Entergy $12.6 million for the Vermont Yankee tritium leak alone.

In some cases, Lochbaum said, nuclear plants have leaks for years, not months in Yankee's case.

In fact, he said, virtually every commercial reactor in the country was leaking tritium, not the two-dozen plus number usually used by the NRC. He said he compiled his list of leaking reactors based on the NRC's own documents.

"Virtually every nuclear plant in the U.S. has reported leaks and many have reported many leaks," he told the 30 people gathered at the Gibson River Garden in downtown Brattleboro. "And no one knows how many leaks have not yet been found."

"Having set the safety bar at an appropriate height, the NRC meekly watches plant owner after plant owner limbo beneath it," he said.

Diane Screnci, a spokeswoman for Region One of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said Sunday afternoon that the NRC considers that 34 reactors are currently or have recently been leaking tritium. She said that number represented plants that had contaminated groundwater.

She couldn't say how many plants were still leaking tritium.

Vermont Yankee's first test showing tritium contamination in a groundwater monitoring well came on Nov. 17; it was at very low levels. But a follow-up test, whose results were made public Jan. 7, showed reportable levels of radioactive tritium contamination and the numbers quickly rose.

In the last report posted by the Vermont Department of Health, one well still shows 1.2 million picocuries per liter, while the EPA Safe Water Drinking standard is 20,000 picocuries per liter; the NRC reporting standard is higher, at 30,000 picocuries per liter.

Despite the contamination of groundwater, no tritium has been measured in any drinking water sources.

Lochbaum painted a grim picture of the federal regulator, in fact the title of his talk was "Nuclear Cop on the Beat or Beaten Nuclear Cop: Groundwater Non-Protection Inertia."

Lochbaum left the NRC earlier this year after about a year for the federal agency; he trained inspectors at nuclear power plants. He said he left because there wasn't enough work to keep him busy, and the Union of Concerned Scientists offered him his old job back with the added incentive of working from his home in Tennessee. He had resigned his post with the Vermont Oversight Panel when he took the NRC job.

Lochbaum credited citizen action groups, such as the New England Coalition, for raising the public awareness and putting pressure on government and federal regulators to pay attention to the radioactive tritium leak at Yankee, and other problems.

He said that in the south, similar tritium leaks at other reactors go on with virtually no attention from either the public or the NRC.

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