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Investigation – Tritium Examined Pt 2

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Part 1 of the investigation into Tritium covered a tritium report carried out by interest groups, and the investigations conducted by the Associated Press.

In this part, attention will be given to specific levels of Tritium increases in different parts of the US and Canada. Along with an investigation covered by The Guardian newspaper on the link between the nuclear industry and government.

The Union of Concerned Scientists reported that over the history of the U.S. industry, more than 400 known radioactive leaks of all kinds of substances have occurred.

The Associated Press investigative report covers many of the events, below are just a few of the incidents. More information can be found on the report here.

  •  In 2002, at a Salem nuclear plant in Lower Alloways Creek Township, N.J. Tritium leaks from the spent fuel pool contaminated groundwater under the facility at a concentration of 15 million picocuries per liter. This placed the numbers at 750 times the EPA drinking water limit. According to the NRC records, even until last year, the tritium readings remained in excess of EPA drinking water standards. This suggests the tritium has the potential to remain for years. Also last year, the operator of the plant, PSEG Nuclear, discovered 680 feet of corroded, buried pipe. Some had worn down to a quarter of its minimum required thickness, though no leaks were found. The piping was dug up and replaced because PSEG Nuclear was found to be in violation of NRC rules because it hadn’t even tested the piping sine 1988.
  •  Last year, the Vermont Yankee reactor in southern Vermont leaked 2.5 million picocuries per litre (125 times the limits for EPA drinking water standard). This prompted the Vermont Senate to win a vote to block relicensing of the plant. The victory did not last as the NRC regulators granted the plant a 20-year license extension, despite the state’s opposition. The operator of the plant, Entergy, even sued Vermont in federal court, challenging its authority to force the plant to close. The story of the tritium leak in Vermont can be found here. Nuclear expert Arnie Gundersen recommended against the re-licensing of Vermont Yankee.
  •  In April 2009, New Jersey’s Oyster Creek generating plant was the oldest operating reactor, and leaked tritium a week after it was re-licensed for 20 more years. Plant workers discovered tritium in about 3,000 gallons of water that had leaked into a concrete vault housing electrical lines. Since then, workers have found leaking tritium three more times at concentrations up to 10.8 million picocuries per liter – 540 times the EPA’s drinking water limit – according to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. A video of this incident can be found here.

In the United States, Exelon is the country’s biggest nuclear operator, with 17 units. At a meeting with regulators in 2009, representatives of Exelon acknowledged that “100 percent verification of piping integrity is not practical,” according to a copy of its presentation. It would be possible for the company to dig the pipes up and check them out. But that would be costly. “Excavations have significant impact on plant operations,” the company said.

  • Exelon experienced a few major leaks in the past. At the company’s two-reactor Dresden site west of Chicago, tritium leaked into the ground at up to 9 million picocuries per liter – 450 times the federal limit for drinking water..
  •  Another big incident was at Braidwood Illinois. This plant leaked more than six million gallons of tritium-laden water in repeated leaks dating back to the 1990s – but not publicly reported until 2005. The leaks were traced to pipes that carried limited, monitored discharges of tritium into the river. Exelon spokeswoman Krista Lopinski stated, “They weren’t properly maintained, and some of them had corrosion“. Last year, Exelon, which has acknowledged violating Illinois state groundwater standards, agreed to pay $1.2 million to settle state and county complaints over the tritium leaks at Braidwood and nearby Dresden and Byron sites.
  •  Tritium measuring 1,500 picocuries per liter turned up in an offsite drinking well at a home near Braidwood. Though company and industry officials did not view any of the Braidwood concentrations as dangerous, unnerved residents took to bottled water and sued over feared loss of property value. A consolidated lawsuit was dismissed, but Exelon ultimately bought some homes so residents could leave. One such home was that of Don Braid. Exelon refused to say how much it paid, but a search of county real estate records revealed it had bought at least nine properties in the contaminated area near Braidwood since 2006 for a total of $6.1 million.In a CBS news report, the story covered a tritium leak in Braidwood Illinois. The news report stated that tritium was leaked but residents were not warned. The news report interviewed Don Braid, a previous homeowner who’s home was eventually bought out by Exelon. Don Braid said, “If its [tritium] not something that’s going to hurt you, why did they hide it for 10 years? Why did they buy my place?” David Kraft of NEIS, a nulear watchdog group said Illinois had the most nuclear reactors and radioactive waste, and the NRC was not policing them enough.

Here is a diagram of the workings of a Nuclear Reactor courtesy of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

An NRC task force on tritium leaks last year dismissed the danger to public health. Instead, its report called the leaks “a challenging issue from the perspective of communications around environmental protection.” The task force noted ruefully that the rampant leaking had “impacted public confidence.” The industry has also taken active measures to prevent the leaks. For several years, plant owners around the country have drilled more monitoring wells and taken a more aggressive approach in replacing old piping when leaks are suspected or discovered.

Guardian Story

The British newspaper, The Guardian, wrote a series of investigative articles that revealed government officials had reached out to top nuclear industry officials following the Fukushima disaster in a plan to cover up the nuclear disaster.

According to the Guardian, leaked emails showed government officials had conspired with the nuclear industry to hatch a plan to prevent further damage to the nuclear industry by keeping the severity of the disaster from the public. Due to this, there were calls for Chris Huhne (Energy Secretary) Liberal Democrat MP and cabinet member, to resign over the emails pertaining to the Fukushima crisis. The Liberal Democrat party’s former chief executive Andy Myles, said: “This deliberate and (sadly) very effective attempt to ‘calm’ the reporting of the true story of Fukushima is a terrible betrayal of liberal values. In my view it is not acceptable that a Liberal Democrat cabinet minister presides over a department deeply involved in a blatant conspiracy designed to manipulate the truth in order to protect corporate interests”.

The full 136 pages of emails between MPs and Nuclear Industry were compiled in a document that can be viewed here.

The emails showed British government officials approached nuclear companies to concoct a co-ordinated public relations (PR) strategy to play down the Fukushima nuclear accident just two days after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and before the extent of the radiation leak was known. The emails showed how the business and energy departments worked closely behind the scenes with the multinational companies EDF Energy, Areva, and Westinghouse to try to ensure the accident did not derail their plans for a new generation of nuclear stations in the UK.

Quoted in the email, one official at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) stated, “This has the potential to set the nuclear industry back globally. We need to ensure the anti-nuclear chaps and chapesses do not gain ground on this. We need to occupy the territory and hold it. We really need to show the safety of nuclear.”

Here were similar messages contained in various other emails:

1.) “At this time it is an industry message which is important, and we will not be trying to score points anywhere
2.) “With regard to the nuclear events in Japan…we need to get good robust messages. This has the potential to set the nuclear industry back globally…we do not want to loose ground to anti-nuclear views.”

What is interesting here, is that Chris Huhne was working “behind the scenes” with nuclear industry giants, while also stating the following to the House of Commons energy and climate change committee:

I think that in this country, we have a good, long-standing tradition of trying…to base public debate on informed assessment. I know it can be frustrating in terms of those who want to come to more rapid conclusions but we should not rush to judgement. Let’ wait until we have got the full facts. And I regret the fact that some continental politicians do seem to be rushing to judgements on this before we have had the proper assessment.

The “continental politicians” Chris Hughne referred to, were MPs in other countries, most notably in Germany, that had announced they would close down seven older reators permanently.

In response to the Guardian story, Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith, who sat on the Commons environmental audit committee, condemned the extent of co-ordination between the government and nuclear companies that the emails appear to reveal. “The government has no business doing PR for the industry and it would be appalling if its departments have played down the impact of Fukushima,” he said.

Louise Hutchins, a spokeswoman for Greenpeace, said the emails looked like “scandalous collusion”. “This highlights the government’s blind obsession with nuclear power and shows neither they, nor the industry, can be trusted when it comes to nuclear,” she said.

At the time of the Fukushima disaster, opinion polls suggested there was poor public support for nuclear power in Britain and around the world, and the governments of Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Thailand and Malaysia cancelled planned nuclear power stations in the wake of the accident.

The business department emailed the nuclear firms and their representative body, the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA), on 13 March, two days after the disaster had knocked out the nuclear plants and their backup safety systems at Fukushima. The department argued it was not as bad as the “dramatic” TV pictures made it look, even though the consequences of the accident were still unfolding and two major explosions at the reactors on the site were yet to occur.  An official suggested that if companies sent in their comments, they could be incorporated into briefs to ministers and government statements. “We need to all be working from the same material to get the message through to the media and the public. “Anti-nuclear people across Europe have wasted no time blurring this all into Chernobyl and the works,” the official told Areva. “We need to quash any stories trying to compare this to Chernobyl.”

The Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) released more than 80 emails sent in the weeks after Fukushima in response to requests under freedom of information legislation. The emails revealed:

  • Nuclear giant Westinghouse said deputy prime minister Nick Clegg’s remarks on the cost of new nuclear power stations “unhelpful and a little premature”.
  • Westinghouse admitted its new reactor,AP1000, “was not designed for earthquakes [of] the magnitude of the earthquake in Japan”, and would need to be modified for seismic areas such as Japan and California.
  • Westinghouse requested ministers not to delay approval for a new radioactive waste store at the Sizewell nuclear site in Suffolk, but accepted there was a “potential risk of judicial review”.
  • The BIS had warned it needed “a good industry response showing the safety of nuclear – otherwise it could have adverse consequences on the market”.

On 7 April, the office for nuclear development invited companies to attend a meeting at the NIA’s headquarters in London. The aim was “to discuss a joint communications and engagement strategy aimed at ensuring we maintain confidence among the British public on the safety of nuclear power stations and nuclear new-build policy in light of recent events at the Fukushima nuclear power plant”.

Out of all this, the case of Britain serves as one reminder to the nature of collusion that can occur between government and industry.

Canada experienced a few problems of its own with large amounts of tritium releases.

Canadian reactor leaks

  •  Back in 2009, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) federal licensing tribunal heard that 53 year old nuclear research reactor at Chalk River Ottawa had been leaking low-level radioactive water into the Ottawa River for around 50 years. The owner of the reactor – Atomic Energy of Canada LTD (AECL), had been unable to halt tritium-laced water seeping from the reactor’s control rod bays and instead decided to dilute the concentration of tritium with fresh water before it somehow leaked into the nearby Ottawa River. Due to the reactor’s age, two additional reactors had been planned for construction titled the “maple reactors”. They were shut down in 2008 by the AECL due to concerns of cost and safety. The problem, was that this reactor was extremely vital for the medical community, and produced half the world’s medical isotope supply used to diagnose cancer and heart disease. The CBC reported on this case found here. The controversy surrounding the Chalk River plant has been immense in Parliament and a video of the proceedings can be found  here.
  • In early 2011, a leak of 200,000 litres of water that contained some quantities of radiation, was released into Lake Ontario. Ontario Power Generation (OPG) investigated into the accident, and took hourly tests of lake water. Their results indicated that tritium posed no harm to nearby residents. Upon this news, Shawn-Patrick Stensil, energy campaigner with Greenpeace said, “Negligence at a nuclear plant can lead to catastrophic consequences. It’s an unforgiving technology.”  OPG notified officials at the Ministry of the Environment, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the Durham Medical Officer and water treatment authorities. The water was reported to contain an unspecified amount of hydrazine, which is a toxic inorganic chemical compound that keeps pipes and tanks from rusting. The spilled water, enough to fill more than two Olympic-sized swimming pools, came from an underground tank that is used for backup cooling in the event of an emergency. The tank overflowed, water ran onto the ground, and much of it flowed into the lake.

What is interesting to note here, is that the report from the Sierra Club titled Tritium On Tap (found in part 1 of this article) warned of increasing levels of Tritium. The current spokesman for the Canada’s Nuclear Safety Commission dismissed the Sierra Club report as “junk science”. The previous president of the Canada’s Nuclear Safety Commission Linda Keen stated that community concerns should be taken seriously on the levels of tritium exposure. She said tritium is an operational byproduct of Candu nuclear reactors, making Canada the world’s largest producer of the otherwise rare radioactive isotope. On the effects of tritium Linda said, “Accumulative effects of tritium are what really worried me (when I was head of the agency), not just the dose at a certain date.”

The former head of the CNSC was fired by Natural Resources Minister Gary Dunn back in 2008 when she refused to allow the restart of the Chalk River reactor because they did not have emergency back-up power for the coolant system in the event of an earthquake. At the time, Auditor General Sheila Fraser spoke out against the decision, stating it would have a “chilling” effect throughout the regulatory system that would compromise safety. Keen had ordered AECL to obey nuclear regulations but rather than obey them, the AECL brought its case before the Minister of Natural Resources and plead that the safety requirements were unnecessary and that the regulator should be ignored. Keen noted it was a tremendous safety violation since the Chalk River reactor sat on a fault line. This was the inherent problem that faced the Fukushima plant as well.

In March of last year, Elizabeth May discussed the exemplar work Linda Keen had done for the nuclear safety of Canada. May outlined the risk in the continued operation of the Chalk River plant. She said, “The Chalk River NRU reactor was operating in violation of its license from the CNSC, and when that was discovered, the CNSC asked the licensee (AECL) to live up to its safety license which required a back up system for power in the event of an earthquake. This is right on point to what is happening in Japan.”

The decision to fire [Linda Keen]…did a damage to the fundamental concept of the relationship between independent regulators and governments that appoint them, and count on them, to live up to their requirement to protect us.

She further went on to say, “Whether we’re talking about food safety, nuclear safety, water pollution, we cannot in this country have regulators who are afraid to regulate for fear that heads will roll if they offend their political masters. This did violence to our regulatory system in Canada.” The full video can be found here

 

From what has been presented thus far, it has been shown that nuclear reactors cannot guarantee a safe manner of dealing with tritium leakages that can be done in a safe, and economical manner. While not much on Tritium is known, the qualification given by regulators that “everything is normal” should also be questioned. Moving forward, we must question just how efficient and independent our regulators really are and this is a fundamental issue that will be discussed in depth moving forward.

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