Nuclear Plants Leak Radiation, and Regulator Faces Scrutiny via U.S.News

Five years after one of the worst nuclear disasters in history, America’s nuclear plants still face safety issues.

In its liquid form, tritium looks just like water: clear and odorless.

Yet it’s radioactive, and in the past two months, two nuclear power plants outside New York City and Miami were found to be leaking tritium: the former into groundwater within the facility’s confines, the second straight into Biscayne Bay.

The leaks, revealed in news reports, apparently haven’t contaminated drinking water and don’t pose a threat to human health. But tritium, while less potent than other substances like cesium or strontium or radium, can still be harmful in high enough concentrations, even lethal. And that’s before taking the public reaction into account: The New York incident made headlinesacrossthe region, anti-nuclear groups warned the state was “flirting with catastrophe,” and Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered an investigation.

The incidents came just a few weeks before the fifth anniversary of the meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which was sparked by a tsunami and earthquake and became the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. They also occurred as the industry was working to burnish its image on safety: All of the nation’s 61 nuclear plants are at least 20 years old, many are over 40, and at least one plant operator has announced it hopes to extend its reactors’ licenses to 80 years.

Yet more than three-quarters of the country’s commercial nuclear power sites have reported some kind of radioactive leak in their life spans, an investigation by the Associated Press found in June 2011 – three months after Fukushima. At the same time, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has repeatedly weakened federal regulations to allow plants to keep operating, despite thousands of problems ranging from corroded pipes to cracked concrete and radioactive leaks.


Meanwhile, last fall, Indian Point in New York – the plant leaking tritium – suffered four unplanned outages in two months.

“Equipment is failing rather than being detected before failure. That’s a disturbing sign,” Lochbaum says.

That doesn’t inherently signal catastrophe. Officials were alerted to the leak in New York by monitoring wells installed for that very purpose, for example, not nearby residents sickened by tainted drinking water.

“That’s good news,” Lochbaum says.

A certain number of radioactive leaks may also be inevitable: “These are industrial facilities dealing with hazardous materials, and they need to be maintained very well, but you cannot maintain them perfectly,” says a former senior government official.

But, the former official adds, “the pendulum swings far more toward the industry than it does toward public safety.”

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