Radioactive Leaks Reported at Dozens of U.S. Nuclear Plants

Nuclear power plants around the country are leaking radioactive tritium from buried corroded pipes. According to a shocking report from the Associated Press, some of that <"">radioactive material has made its way into groundwater.

The Associated Press has been conducting a year-long review of safety issues at aging nuclear power plants. Its review of U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) records revealed that the tritium, which is a radioactive form of hydrogen, is leaking at 48 of 65 sites. In a minority of cases, the tritium leaks have migrated off site, outside of plant boundaries. However, none of the leaks are known to have contaminated public water supplies.

Of the 48 sites, 37 did contain tritium well over federal drinking water standards, the Associated Press said. In some cases, it exceeded that limit hundreds of times.

These sites include two in Illinois and one in Minnesota that have contaminated wells that provide drinking water to homes nearby, though not at levels that violate drinking water standards. A fourth site in New Jersey has contaminated an aquifer, as well as a canal that feeds Barnegat Bay off the Atlantic Ocean.

Even more shocking, the NRC has continued to grant licenses to all of the nuclear facilities where tritium leaks are occurring. According to the Associated Press, regulators have relaxed rules for decades to allow the plants to stay open. Critics of the agency say this practice makes an accident more likely.

Safety experts are worried that the existence of the leaks indicates the buried piping that carries the radioactive material is in bad shape, the Associate Press said.

“You got pipes that have been buried underground for 30 or 40 years, and they’ve never been inspected, and the NRC is looking the other way,” engineer Paul Blanch, who has worked for the industry and later became a whistleblower,” told the Associated Press. “They could have corrosion all over the place.”

Another safety engineer told the Associated Press that since much of the piping is inaccessible and carries cooling water, a leaking pipe could cause a meltdown.

According to the Associated Press, the NRC is only too aware of the problem. Documents suggest the agency sees it as more of a public relations issue than a safety concern. For example, a report issued last year by an NRC task force charged with investigating the problems called the leaks “a challenging issue from the perspective of communications around environmental protection.”

The Associated Press report did find that the nuclear power plant industry is trying to stop the leaks, and has recently stepped up efforts to replace leaking pipes and drill monitoring wells. But so far, these efforts have fallen short and hasn’t stopped the leaking.

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