Tuesday, March 28, 2006

On the Anniversary of Three-Mile Island

This slipped past me, although it's apparently been in the news and on NPR recently. Our nuclear power plants are leaking:

"It does appear that it's bang, bang, bang - one right after the other," Steve Klementowicz, a Nuclear Regulatory Commission senior health physicist, said of discharges of radioactive tritium-laced water at nuclear plants in Arizona, Illinois, and New York.

Tritium, a byproduct of nuclear power generation, is a relatively weak source of radiation. But long-term exposure can increase the risks of cancer, miscarriages and birth defects. It can be ingested or absorbed in human tissue.

Klementowicz and other NRC officials said at a hearing here that the task force of experts will evaluate the health impacts of what has happened at least five plants since December, and possibly earlier incidents. But they emphasized that the latest reports from all the sites, including Palo Verde, do not indicate any immediate public hazards.
One small problem with that assurance: according to Dr. Michio Kaku (I first heard of this problem today on his program "Explorations"), water with tritium is chemically indistinguishable from water without. Nor is there any way to remove tritium from contaminated water. So if it gets into your water supply, it gets into you, and there's nothing to be done about it. And should it be in amounts large enough to be problematic, well....

How long has this been going on? Well, since 1996 in Braceville, Illinois. There have been spills at two other plants owned by the same company, all around Chicago. There was also a spill at the Palo Verde plant in Wintersburg, Arizona, as well as at the Indian Point power plant in New York.

The prevailing sentiment seems to be the amounts leaked are not dangerous. But the prevailing concern is: how long has this been going on, and what else is not known about such discharges? Consider this, for example, from the Palo Verde leak article:

In Arizona, while APS has not pinpointed the source of the tritium contamination in water found at Palo Verde, company officials said more and more evidence suggests that rainfall, rather than a cracked or leaking pipe, could be a source.

Adding to this "washout" theory, they said, is that recent rainfall samples collected from a roof vent found tritium levels similar to the samples found in the contaminated water.

"This is what we believe is going on," said Craig Seaman, Palo Verde's general manager of regulatory affairs. "We're certainly not willing to hang our hat on this yet, and say this is the absolute answer."

Palo Verde vents tritium into the air as a normal byproduct of nuclear power generation. Other nuclear power plants typically dispose of the chemical in streams or lakes where it quickly dissipates, Seaman said.

Seaman said APS officials believe rainfall captured the tritium released from the plant and washed it into the soil there.

He said APS believes it is a "localized phenomenon" restricted to Palo Verde, so it is unlikely rainfall outside the plant would carry heavier tritium samples.

State environmental officials who also are working with APS to determine the source of the tritium said rainfall would be more problematic than a leaking pipe.

"If that is their conclusion - that tritium is being released into the air and coming down to earth with the rain - that raises a heck of a lot more questions in my mind than it answers," said Steve Owens, director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.
I know I feel better thinking we might be lacing the rain with tritium.

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