VERNON, Vt. - The nuclear industry, once an environmental pariah, is recasting itself as green as it attempts to extend the life of many power plants and build new ones. But a leak of radioactive water at Vermont Yankee, along with similar incidents at more than 20 other US nuclear plants in recent years, has kindled doubts about the reliability, durability, and maintenance of the nation's aging nuclear installations.
Vermont health officials say the leak, while deeply worrisome, is not a threat to drinking water supplies or the Connecticut River, which flows beside the 38-year-old plant, nor is it endangering public health. But the controversy is threatening to derail the nuclear plant's bid, now at a critical juncture, for state approvals to extend its operating life by 20 years when its license expires in two years. Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspectors, Vermont Yankee's owners, and state officials are tracing the source of the radioactivity and searching for other leaks in the labyrinth of below-surface pipes on the plants' property about 10 miles from the Massachusetts border.
The timing couldn't be worse for the nuclear industry, coming as it attempts a broad rebirth as a green energy source in the battle against global warming; the reactors do not emit greenhouse gases that cause the atmosphere to warm.
Memories of the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are receding and many in the public are taking a second look at nuclear. President Obama last week endorsed a new generation of nuclear power in his State of the Union address, and for the first time in decades, more than 20 new plants have been proposed.
But the leaks have the potential to slow, if not stop, the bandwagon. Crucial voices are calling for caution. "I am appalled by the safety procedures not only at Vermont Yankee, but at other nuclear facilities across the country who have failed to inspect thousands of miles of buried pipes at their facilities,'' US Representative Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, the chairman of the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee, said last week. Earlier this month, Markey asked the US Government Accountability Office to investigate the integrity, safety, inspections, and maintenance of buried pipes at nuclear plants.
Critics say the problems with buried pipes are evidence the plants are too old and poorly maintained to continue to safely operate as many - including plants in Seabrook, N.H., and Plymouth - seek extensions of their original 40-year operating licenses. Nuclear advocates, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, say that while the leaks of a radioactive form of water containing tritium are serious, those that have contaminated groundwater have not exceeded regulatory limits or harmed the structural integrity, operation, or safety of the plants.
"No leak of tritium has ever had a negative impact on the health and safety of the public,'' said Tom Kauffman, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, a prominent industry group. In 2006, the industry took it upon itself to search more aggressively for problems with buried piping and tritium leaks.
"These are the most highly regulated, highly monitored industrialized [power plants] in the nation,'' Kauffman said. He said the nation's 104 nuclear plants are some of the greenest sources of energy in the country. "It is very important to keep these plants working.''
Indeed, Vermont Yankee provides roughly one-third of the Green Mountain State's electricity and, to the delight of many business owners and residents, it is inexpensive. That low cost - and the 650 jobs the plant provides - has won it longstanding political support in the state. Still, antinuclear sentiment, always an undercurrent in this liberal state because of the dangers of radioactive releases and waste, accelerated after the plant received NRC permission to increase its power output by 20 percent in 2006.
The next year, a cooling tower partially collapsed, and in 2008, another tower sprung a leak. The plant's safety was not compromised, but the events stoked public concerns about the adequacy of plant maintenance. More than 200 people, evoking the 1970s grass-roots efforts against the construction of nuclear plants in New England, took part in some portions of a 127-mile march from Brattleboro to the state capital, Montpelier, earlier this month.
Then earlier this month, Vermont Yankee's owner, Louisiana-based Entergy Corp., told state and federal regulators it had discovered elevated levels of tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, in a 30-foot-deep monitoring well on the property as part of the voluntary industry effort to look for leaks. Two weeks later, Entergy said it found much higher levels of tritium - along with Cobalt-60, another radioactive isotope - in a 40-foot-long trench that houses pipes. It is unclear whether the two areas of contamination are related.
Tritium, while found in nature in small amounts, is produced as a byproduct in nuclear power plants. The US Environmental Protection Agency says tritiated water increases the risk of cancer if someone drinks it, but the radiation is low-level and leaves the body quickly. The agency has set a drinking water standard for tritium of 20,000 picocuries - a measure of radioactivity - per liter.
The test well, which is not used for drinking water, has registered increasingly higher levels of tritium in recent weeks - topping out at 29,000 picocuries per liter. The trench had levels in the millions of picocuries per liter. Vermont Yankee is drilling seven more wells to see how widespread the problem is.
"Obviously we are taking this very seriously,'' said plant spokesman Rob Williams, as he guided a reporter through a maze of security fencing to view one of the monitoring wells near the Connecticut River. He stressed that the company was doing everything it could to figure out the extent of the problem and its source. The plant told regulators about the elevated levels as soon as they were found, even though they were below levels required to be reported, he said.
Across the country, tritium leaks have not prevented re-licensing of the nation's nuclear plants by the NRC, which has extended the operating life of 59 reactors and is considering or expected to consider 37 other applications in the next seven years.
In December, the agency issued a report noting that an evaluation of buried piping showed that corrosion, where leaks can spring from, tends to occur in small areas where anti-corrosion coating is damaged. The agency concluded that its oversight of the issue is adequate, but spokesman Neil Sheehan said in an e-mail that the NRC is "a learning agency'' and would continue to review any new information and change policies as needed to ensure safety.
The leaks at Vermont Yankee have caused a credibility problem for the plant's owner. State officials have charged that Entergy officials misled them on a number of occasions by denying the plant had buried piping that could carry radioactive material. Last week, Governor Jim Douglas, a longtime supporter of the plant, asked legislators to delay a vote needed for the plant's re-licensing. He also called for a state board to stop considering Entergy's request to spin off Vermont Yankee into a subsidiary with its other nuclear plants, a move that the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, a consumer and environmental non-profit, says could limit the parent company's financial liability when the plant shuts down.
"What has happened at Vermont Yankee is a breach of trust that cannot be tolerated,'' Douglas said in a statement last week. Until questions are answered, he said, "decisions about the long-term future of the plant should not be made.''
Entergy, in a statement, said that it was disappointed by Douglas's decision but is conducting an investigation "to get to the bottom of how and why the company provided conflicting information to state officials.''
The Brattleboro-based New England Coalition, longtime critics of nuclear energy, said the buried-pipe problem at Vermont Yankee underscores a far larger one for the nation - its nuclear plants are old.
"It is the canary in the coal mine,'' said coalition codirector Clay Turnbull.