A quarter of U.S. nuclear plants leaking

CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Schultz

AP: “27 of 104 plants leak radioactive tritium, a carcinogen, raising Concerns about nation’s aging plants”


Radioactive tritium, a carcinogen discovered in potentially dangerous levels in groundwater at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, now taints at least 27 of the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors “” raising concerns about how it is escaping from the aging nuclear plants.

Just something to add to all of the “benefits” of going nuke (see “Intro to nuclear power“).  At the very least, this should put up yet another warning flag on the rush to build dozens of new nukes.

The AP story suggests that the original plant designs were inadequate from the perspective of public safety:

The leaks “” many from deteriorating underground pipes “” come as the nuclear industry is seeking and obtaining federal license renewals, casting itself as a clean-green alternative to power plants that burn fossil fuels.

Tritium, found in nature in tiny amounts and a product of nuclear fusion, has been linked to cancer if ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin in large amounts.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Monday that new tests at a monitoring well on Vermont Yankee’s site in Vernon registered 70,500 picocuries per liter, more than three times the federal safety standard of 20,000 picocuries per liter.

That is the highest reading yet at the Vermont Yankee plant, where the original discovery last month drew sharp criticism by Gov. Jim Douglas and others….

Vermont Yankee is just the latest of dozens of U.S. nuclear plants, many built in the 1960s and ’70s, to be found with leaking tritium.

The Braidwood nuclear station in Illinois was found in the 1990s to be leaking millions of gallons of tritium-laced water, some of which contaminated residential water wells. Plant owner Exelon Corp. ended up paying for a new municipal water system.

After Braidwood, the nuclear industry stepped up voluntary checking for tritium in groundwater at plants around the country, testing that revealed the Vermont Yankee problem, plant officials said.

In New Jersey last year, tritium was reported leaking a second time from the Oyster Creek plant in Ocean County, just days after Exelon won NRC approval for a 20-year license extension there. The Pilgrim plant in Plymouth, Mass., like Vermont Yankee, owned by Entergy, reported low levels of tritium on the ground in 2007. The Vermont leak has prompted a Plymouth-area citizens group to demand more test wells at the Massachusetts plant.

NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan says leaks have occurred at least 27 of the nation’s 104 commercial reactors at 65 plant sites. He said the list likely does not include every plant where tritium has leaked.

The leaks have several causes; underground pipes corroding and the leaking of spent fuel storage pools are the most common. The source of the leak or leaks at Vermont Yankee has not been found; at Oyster Creek, corroded underground pipes were implicated.

This is certainly not a fatal flaw in the prospects for new nukes, but does make clear that nuclear plants have not been adequatly designed for their entire projected lifetime.  And that means new nukes are probably going to cost even more than currently projected, which is already a staggering high:

It also means we need more oversight — not further expedited licensing — since this incident clearly shows the industry cannot be trusted to be fully honest with the public

Officials of the New Orleans-based Entergy Corp., which owns the plant in Vernon in Vermont’s southeast corner, have admitted misleading state regulators and lawmakers by saying the plant did not have the kind of underground pipes that could leak tritium into groundwater.

“What has happened at Vermont Yankee is a breach of trust that cannot be tolerated,” said Republican Gov. Jim Douglas, who until now has been a strong supporter of the state’s lone nuclear plant.

Q:  Should people worry about tritium in their water?

Tritium, found in nature in tiny amounts and a product of nuclear fusion, has been linked to cancer if ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin in large amounts….

Many radiological health scientists agree with the Environmental Protection Agency that tritium, like other radioactive isotopes, can cause cancer…..

There’s disagreement on the severity of the risk.

“Somebody would have to be drinking a lot of water and it would have to be really concentrated in there for it to do any harm at all,” said Jacqueline Williams, a radiation biologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York state.

But in 2005, the National Academy of Sciences concluded after an exhaustive study that even the tiniest amount of ionizing radiation increases the risk of cancer.

“The scientific research base shows that there is no threshold of exposure below which low levels of ionizing radiation can be demonstrated to be harmless or beneficial,” Richard R. Monson, associate dean for professional education and professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, said when the NAS released its study.

A:  People should worry about it enough to make sure that their nuclear plants aren’t leaking!  And this goes double for any plant that is trying to extend its life, as most are:

Vermont, with a strong anti-nuclear movement, is the only state in the country where the Legislature decides whether to relicense a nuclear plant. Vermont Yankee’s current 40-year license is up in 2012, and Entergy is asking for 20 more years.

We do have better, cheaper, faster, safer options for low-carbon power (see “An introduction to the core climate solutions“).

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16 Responses to A quarter of U.S. nuclear plants leaking

  1. This story is no surprise and just further proof – that we didn’t really need – of how untrustworthy the operators of nuclear power plants have been as their industry standard.

    There’s no sense in even talking about the merits of the technology when the record of lies, cover ups and Homer Simpson level management and work competence is so unforgiving. You can’t trust the nuclear power industry to either design or operate their plants in a way that protects the public no matter how much tax money they suck up year after year.

    And you can’t trust the politicans who want more billions for new nuclear which they will turn over to the same cartoon clowns who falsify safety checks and spill radioactive water and waste wherever they operate.

    I wrote about this two years ago in Creative Greenius and things have only gotten worse since then:

  2. mike roddy says:

    One more sign that the rush to go nuclear is not at all rational, in addition to all the phony claims about cost, including government loan and meltdown insurance. Even the only-green-baseload claim is false, if we change to a smart grid with DC- a move that would not only enable solar/wind, but greatly reduce line loss. Oh, and create a lot more jobs than nuclear.

    Nuclear is backed by a few big firms and, especially, banks, who love government loan guarantees. Thank God that even they can’t fudge the numbers enough to make them work.

  3. Dan says:

    Joe, can you do a story on the explosion at the CT power plant this weekend? See the NYT for coverage.

  4. paulm says:

    Post the article on your FB portal.
    That will definitely help kill any nuclear expansion.

  5. ken levenson says:

    I grew up about 30 miles from Vermont Yankee, upstream thankfully! I can’t believe that antique power plant is still operating…boggles the mind.

  6. Leif says:

    Creative Greenius, #1: You can’t trust the nuclear power industry to either design or operate their plants in a way that protects the public no matter how much tax money they suck up year after year. I fully agree with you. However there is one way to change that equation and that is for the Nuclear industry to be responsible for ALL it’s costs.
    Whoops, but then no plants would be built.
    Safety would be solved however.

  7. Lou Grinzo says:

    How many more decades will it take before we figure out how to do nuclear right? We’ve been building and running commercial nuclear power plants since Shippingport, PA in 1957, and we still have these surprises, not to mention the endless, pathetic economics of nuclear power.

    The claims that we can now do fission right are just as laughable as the claims for the last 50 years that fusion was 20 years away.

  8. Icarus says:

    As far as I can tell it makes sense to reject nuclear power in the US, in favour of large-scale solar or wind power, because you have vast areas of suitable land for those kinds of low-density power generation. In other countries with very different circumstances, such as here in the UK (much less sunshine, much less land per person), nuclear power is probably our only realistic way of getting off fossil fuels.

  9. Edward says:

    Coal contains: URANIUM, ARSENIC, LEAD, MERCURY, Antimony, Cobalt, Nickel, Copper, Selenium, Barium, Fluorine, Silver, Beryllium, Iron, Sulfur, Boron, Titanium, Cadmium, Magnesium, Thorium, Calcium, Manganese, Vanadium, Chlorine, Aluminum, Chromium, Molybdenum and Zinc. There is so much of these elements in coal that cinders and coal smoke are actually valuable ores. We should be able to get all the uranium and thorium we need to fuel nuclear power plants for centuries by using cinders and smoke as ore. Remember that, to get a given amount of energy, you need on the order of 100 MILLION TIMES as much coal as uranium. On an atom by atom basis. That means the coal mine has to be 100 million times larger than the uranium mine, not counting the recycling of nuclear fuel. Unburned Coal also contains BENZENE, THE CANCER CAUSER. We can keep our mountains and forests and our health by switching from coal to nuclear power. We could get all of our uranium and thorium from coal ashes and cinders. The carbon content of coal ranges from 96% down to 25%, the remainder being rock of various kinds.

    Chinese industrial grade coal is sometimes stolen by peasants for cooking. The result is that the whole family dies of arsenic poisoning in days, not years because Chinese industrial grade coal contains large amounts of arsenic.

    I have zero financial interest in nuclear power, and I never have had a financial interest in nuclear power. My sole motivation in writing this is to avoid extinction due to global warming.
    Yes, that ARSENIC is getting into the air you breathe, the water you drink and the soil your food grows in. So are all of those other heavy metal poisons. Your health would be a lot better without coal. Benzene is also found in petroleum. If you have cancer, check for benzene in your past.
    for most of the above.

  10. hahaha the picture is more than appropriate

  11. Robert says:

    Tritium is radioactive and does not occur in nature, so it must be created using neutrons. Tritium-deuterium fusion reaction can be replaced by helium-3 or hydrogen-boron-11, generating electricity directly without releasing neutrons, and I think an aneutronic reactor is able to carry out this type of fusion.

  12. Jim Hopf says:

    This “issue” is a sign that plants are not adequately designed?! That we need even more regulation and oversight?! Proof that we “still can’t do nuclear right after 50 years?! This is so far off base that it’d be hilarious if the issues were not so serious (i.e., fossil plant pollution related deaths and global warming.

    So there’s a small local spot of water under the plant that is about as radioactive (per unit volume) as bananas, or many other foods. Water with such a trivial radiation level that you could drink it as your only fluid source for an entire year and still only get a dose that is a tiny fraction of natural background. This “iisue” has no potential to cause a single sickness, let along a single death.

    The safety record of the Western nuclear power industry, and of NRC, is second to none. US nuclear plants have not caused a single public death, or had any measurable impact on public health, over their entire ~50-year history. Meanwhile fossil plants cause 25,000 deaths in the US alone every single year, and are the leading single cause of US global warming emissions. Increasing the (already absurd) regulatory standards on nuclear, which will only lead to more use of fossil fuels, which are 1000 times as dangerous and polluting, is immoral.

    As for economics, it is “environmentalists” (nuclear opponents) who insist on Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), massive subsidies for renewables only, state reactor bans, and other policies that (quietly) give nuclear no chance to compete; all the while blathering about how it wouldn’t be competitive. Think renewables are cheaper? Fine. Support the elimination of all RPS policies. Support elimination of all subsidies, or having the same subsidies (e.g., loan guarantees or tax credits, etc…) for all non-emitting sources. Support a tax or limit on CO2 and leave it up to the market to decide. Studies on what would happen if we simply have a cap-and-trade system (by EPA, EIA, CBO, etc..) all show huge increases in nuclear by 2030.

    Dan, don’t expect Joe to do a story on the gas power plant explosion (at a minimum, he will down play it). In their quest to find an energy future w/o nuclear, Joe and Co., have gotten into bed with the natural gas industry. What they propose, instead of nuclear, is a mix of gas and some renewables, but mostly gas. This gas-heavy alternative is less safe, more polluting, more expensive, and more CO2-emitting than nuclear (e.g., the French example).

    The gas plant story is just one more example of how much less safe gas is than nuclear. Gas related accidents (fires and explosions) are so common that they rarely get press coverage. This one event at the CT plant, where 5 people died (100 injured), has just killed 5 more people than US nuclear plants have over the last 50 years.

    And these are just gas related accidents, before even considering the deaths from gas plant pollution, or the CO2 emissions, or the depletion of precious resources (uranium has no other use), or the geopolitical issues associated with gas/oil dependence. Finally, there is the fact that hydrofracking (shale gas) represents a far greater ground water pollution threat, even over the very long term, than Yucca Mountian could ever be.

  13. Prokaryote says:

    Jim, nevertheless it has to be addressed. And a focus should be on the technique – age of such a plant. Also i think the nuclaer industrie does a poor job in presenting the negative/positive side of nuclear technology in a responsible way.
    Why do some scientist support nuclear power plants in the climate crisis?
    And there is way to much one sided PR. You have to be critical with yourself aswell.

    I agree the focus should be gas/coal, and the assocciated – higher, short term impacts.

  14. Jim Hopf says:


    It’s definitely being addressed, by the industry. They’re devoting significant resources to adressing this problem, if for no other reason than the fact that leaking pipes may cause operational problems down the road.

    I have no problem with demands that actions be taken to try and address this problem (witihin reason). Saying it’s a reason to shut down plants with decades of life left, I have a problem with, given that the effects of alternative (fossil) sources are so much worse.

  15. Rod Adams says:

    A picocurie is 1 x 10^-12 curies. A picocurie is to a curie as a penny is to $10 BILLION.

    A curie of tritium is a very small amount, with a mass of just 0.1 milligrams. Therefore water that contains 70,000 picocuries/liter of tritium contains 0.0000000000075 grams of tritium in a mass of 1000 grams of water.

    According to the EPA’s web site, here are the health effect of tritium:

    “As with all ionizing radiation, exposure to tritium increases the risk of developing cancer. However, because it emits very low energy radiation and leaves the body relatively quickly, for a given amount of activity ingested, tritium is one of the least dangerous radionuclides. Since tritium is almost always found as water, it goes directly into soft tissues and organs. The associated dose to these tissues are generally uniform and dependent on the tissues’ water content.”

    Though a scientist would tell you that the risk is not ZERO, a practical engineer who lives in the real world will tell you that it is close enough to ZERO so that any differences do not matter.

    I would not lose any sleep over a tritium “leak” whose magnitude requires the use of 11 zeros to the right of a decimal point to measure it in grams. That is especially true since I know that 70% of the electricity in the United States is produced by burning fossil fuels in plants with design features called smokestacks that dump billions of tons of gaseous waste containing at least a dozen different carcinogens into our common atmosphere every year.

    One more thing – methane leaks are far more deadly than tritium leaks, even when the methane has a warm and fuzzy marketing term like “natural gas”. Just in case you did not know that, check out the stories about the 620 MWe gas fired power plant that exploded in Middletown, CT on Sunday, February 7.

    Tritium SOUNDS scary, methane IS scary and deadly if it leaks.

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights

  16. Brent says:

    Yes, natural gas is dinosaur farts. What could be more natural then that?