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Indian Point Tritium leak

June 21, 2014

Courtesy of

Michel Lee, Esq.

Steering Committee

Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition


Council on Intelligent Energy & Conservation Policy (CIECP)

(914) 420-5624


Feds: Indian Pt. may have tritium leak


JOURNAL NEWS: Risinit, Feds: Indian Pt. may have tritium leak, Journal News, Jun 20, 2014.


Radioactive tritium in the groundwater beneath the Indian Point nuclear power plant could be part of an ongoing leak and not a momentary spike as first thought, federal regulators said Thursday.

Elevated levels of tritium — a low-energy radioactive form of hydrogen — were found in two monitoring wells in late March near Indian Point Unit 2. Samples in April and May showed decreasing levels, suggesting the contamination might have been related to the movement of used nuclear fuel during a maintenance shutdown.

But samples collected this month showed the concentration rising again and then decreasing. There is no health threat to either the public or Indian Point workers, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said.

“Is it accurate to describe these increases as ‘spikes’ if there are several significant variations in tritium levels in monitoring wells?” NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said in an e-mail. “(Plant owner) Entergy acknowledges that it could be indicative of an ongoing source of leakage rather than one attributable to the most recent Indian Point 2 refueling and maintenance outage.”

A byproduct of nuclear power, the Environmental Protection Agency characterizes tritium as “one of the least dangerous” radioactive particles because it emits very low radiation and, if ingested, leaves the body relatively quickly.

Entergy is testing drains, pipes and tanks for damage and making sure there were no unidentified spills during the March shutdown, company spokesman Jerry Nappi said. Such fluctuations aren’t uncommon and could be due to the bedrock’s formation beneath the plant and how rainwater filters through the rock, he said.

“While the overall trend in this instance is still a downward one, we have not ruled any source out and continue to aggressively investigate to find the cause of the elevated tritium,” Nappi said in an email, adding the company’s inquiry was still pointing toward a one-time event.

The monitoring wells were installed after sampling in 2005 found tritium in the groundwater, a leak traced to a failed weld in a canal leading to Unit 2’s spent fuel pool.

The current problem might not have been detected without those wells, said Dave Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists. But until the source is found, he said, the leak’s seriousness can’t be fully assessed.

“I think the good news is at least the flag has been raised,” Lochbaum said.

Indian Point isn’t the only U.S. nuclear plant with tritium-groundwater issues. A list maintained by the NRC shows 44 other plants with tritium leaks or spills, as far back as 1979.


Indian Point’s Tritium Problem and the N.R.C.’s Regulatory Problem



NEW YORK TIMES: Revkin, Andrew C, Indian Point’s Tritium Problem and the N.R.C.’s Regulatory Problem, Jun 13, 2014.

The Indian Point nuclear power plant, 30 miles from New York City (and 8 miles from my house), has been run safely and reliably for the most part. But it’s at a critical juncture, with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo having vowed to shut it down and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission weighing relicensing for the two operating reactors.

Now news that two monitoring wells detected a spike in levels of tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, has raised important questions about the aging infrastructure at the complex. I asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to provide some details on what’s been found, and then asked for a reaction from David A. Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

As longtime readers know, I support the continued (responsible, regulated) operation of the plant (my wife, who’s an environmental educator, and many friends do not). While the tritium spikes don’t represent a health threat, I agree with Lochbaum on the need for significant changes in oversight, which he characterizes this way below: “The N.R.C. should enforce its regulations or change its name to N.C.”

Please read on for the commission’s findings and Lochbaum’s argument:

Neil Sheehan, a press officer for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, sent this note:

Here is information on the Indian Point tritium spikes:

On April 9, Entergy confirmed an increase in groundwater tritium concentration in two monitoring wells located near Indian Point Unit 2. A sample taken from Monitoring Well 31 on March 27 indicated 235,000 picocuries per liter of tritium while a sample taken from Monitoring Well 32 on March 28 indicated 690,000 picocuries per liter of tritium. Subsequent sampling done on April 8 indicated a significant drop in the concentrations, with the highest level recorded at 214,000 picocuries per liter of tritium. (In 1991, EPA calculated a drinking-water tritium concentration to yield a 4 millirems per year dose as 60,900 picocuries per liter – a threefold increase from the maximum contaminant level of 20,000 picocuries per liter established in 1976. However, EPA kept the 1976 value of 20,000 picocuries per liter for tritium in its latest regulations. In order for a member of the public to receive a dose of 4 millirems from water contaminated with tritium, they would have to drink two quarts of water at 20,000 picocuries per liter of tritium every day for a year. Of course, the groundwater at Indian Point is not used for drinking-water purposes; the site uses city water for that.)

A sample taken from Monitoring Well 32 on May 2nd indicated 55,000 picocuries per liter of tritium. The baseline level for this well, based on the ongoing attenuation of the pre-existing tritium plume, was about 35,000.

A sample taken from Monitoring Well 31 on May 5th indicated 88,0000 picocuries per liter of tritium. The baseline level for this well was about 33,000.

However, there was another spike – to 440,000 picocuries per liter of tritium – observed in a sample taken from the Monitoring Well 32 on June 3rd.

Entergy has been investigating the possible cause(s) for the increases, including whether they represent an instantaneous spike related to the recent Unit 2 refueling and maintenance outage or a more lasting issue. The company has put together a team to explore possible causes.

The N.R.C. has been closely following these reviews. In fact, this week we are performing an inspection of the plant’s radiological environmental monitoring program, and that review will encompass this issue. As past studies of groundwater flows at the site have shown, the contaminated water will migrate to the river over the course of several months. Once in the river, the dilution factor would render any contamination non-detectable. The public dose from the contamination is estimated at much less than 0.1 millirems per year, which is well within the liquid effluent technical specifications limit for the plant of 3 millirems per year.

Here’s a link to our fact sheet on tritium.

Sheehan provided this diagram showing the locations of the wells:

Nuclear Regulatory CommissionA diagram showing the locations of monitoring wells around the Indian Point nuclear power plant north of New York City (enlarge). Wells 31 and 32 showed a spike in levels of tritium this spring.

David Lochbaum offered this reaction:

First, the good news. The indications of elevated tritium levels strongly suggest a leak of radioactively contaminated water from Indian Point (it’s not irrefutable evidence of an ongoing or recent leak since it could be past leakage finally reaching the monitoring wells due to recent rainfall.) This is good news in the sense that all the monitoring wells are fairly recent additions to the site. More than 12 years ago, leakage would either not have been detected or only detected after people started dying, a la Love Canal. So, strange as it seems, awareness is a good thing. It provides time to implement measures to protect people and the environment.

Turning to the bad news, the NRC needs to get off the bench and into the regulating game. All the rhetoric about 20,000 picocuries per liter and neighbors drinking two quarts a day for a year is totally irrelevant.

N.R.C.’s regulations do not allow a drop of radioactively contaminated water to leave Indian Point except via monitored and controlled pathways. Even if the monitoring wells constituted a monitored pathway (which they don’t despite the name), it’s not a controlled pathway. Thus, N.R.C.’s regulations are being violated. But N.R.C. does not enforce those regulations. N.R.C. could impose a fine of $130,000 per day. That would give Entergy ample incentive to quickly find the leak (and stop the fine tally) and to implement steps to prevent future leaks (and future fines).

But nooooo. The N.R.C. instead invoked the “no blood, no foul” rule and becomes Entergy’s ally in allowing ongoing leaks (and ongoing crimes.)

The regulations were adopted following a public rulemaking process. That process allowed the public to chime in if the proposed regulations seemed too tame. The process allowed owners to chime in if the proposed regulations seemed too onerous. The final regulations adopted by the N.R.C. by definition became Goldilocks standards, neither too harsh nor too lean.

The regulations are essentially three-way contracts between the N.R.C., plant owners, and the public. The regulations protect owners from the N.R.C. requiring more stringent, and more costly, measures. The regulations should protect the public from the N.R.C. accepting less than compliance with the regulations.

But the N.R.C. is breaching its contract with the public around Indisn Point. It is allowing Entergy to leak radioactively contaminated water from Indoan Point as long as that leakage dies not kill people.

The N.R.C. should enforce its regulations or change its name to N.C. For the R in N.R.C. stands for Regulatory and the N.R.C. needs to do something to deserve such labeling or the FTC [Federal Trade Commission] should get after them for false advertising.

I documented the regulations the N.R.C. had established but the ignored in my September 2010 report Regulatory Roulette.


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