Radioactive waste continues to pour from Exelon’s Illinois nuclear power plants more than a decade after discovery of chronic leaks led to national outrage, a $1.2 million government settlement and a company vow to guard against future accidents.
Since 2007, there have been at least 35 reported leaks, spills or other accidental releases in Illinois of water contaminated with radioactive tritium, a byproduct of nuclear power production and a carcinogen at high levels, a Better Government Association review of federal and state records shows.
No fines were issued for the accidents, all of which were self-reported by the company.
The most recent leak of 35,000 gallons occurred over two weeks in May and June at Exelon’s Braidwood plant southwest of Chicago, and was ongoing even as state inspectors were at the plant and being assured by Exelon officials there were no problems.
Braidwood is the same facility that was the focus of a community panic in the mid-2000s after a series of accidents stirred debate over the safety of aging nuclear plants.
A 2014 incident at Exelon’s Dresden facility in Grundy County involved the release of about 500,000 gallons of highly radioactive water. Contamination was later found in the plant’s sewer lines and miles away in the city sewage treatment plant at Morris.
Another leak was discovered in 2007 at the Quad Cities plant in Cordova. It took eight months to plug and led to groundwater radiation readings up to 375 times higher than that allowed under federal safe drinking water standards.
Exelon had threatened to close the Quad Cities plant but relented last year after Gov. Bruce Rauner signed bailout legislation authorizing big rate hikes.
Michael Pacilio, chief operating officer of the power generating arm of Exelon, said no one in or around the Illinois plants was harmed by radioactivity from the leaks, which he described as minor compared with everyday exposures. “We live in a radioactive world,” Pacilio said.
Critics say that’s little cause for relief. “Best that we can tell, that’s more luck than skill,” said David Lochbaum, an analyst with the non-profit Union of Concerned Scientists. “Leaks aren’t supposed to happen. Workers and the public could be harmed. There is a hazard there.”
The accidents included in the BGA analysis are separate from government-approved releases into large bodies of water. The state allows Exelon to discharge controlled amounts of tritium into rivers and lakes, where radioactive material gets diluted.
Other releases of tritium, however, can be illegal and subject to fines and government lawsuits — though no accidents from the past decade resulted in either. Government officials say small amounts of tritium — a radioactive form of hydrogen and a potential marker for more dangerous nuclear contaminants — are not harmful to humans but exposure to higher levels may increase the risk of cancer.
In addition to incidents specifically labeled as “leaks” or “spills,” government reports examined by the BGA also pointed to at least two dozen other cases of contamination classified only as “releases,” a catch-all category for problems that are sometimes unclear.[…]