Tritium Leaks at Oldest Nuclear Plant Went Unreported Before Relicensing

November 5, 2009

Series of cover-ups undermines faith in Exelon



The radioactive tritium leak discovered at the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in April, a scant eight days after federal regulators approved Exelon's application to continue operating the nation's oldest nuclear power plant for another 20 years despite a long history of safety issues, is infamous to the concerned residents of the Jersey Shore.

Last week, the public learned that another leak in August spewed tritium at 500 times the allowable levels into the environment.

But what has not been widely publicized is that Oyster Creek officials misrepresented facts to state and federal regulators about prior radioactive leaks between July 2006 and September 2008.

A review of public documents revealed correspondence from the Union of Concerned Scientists and the state Department of Environmental Protection in which both organizations caught Exelon officials in apparent lies regarding leaks of tritium, a radioactive substance that may increase the rates of cancer, miscarriages and birth defects.

In a letter dated April 10, 2007, David Lochbaum, formerly of the Union of Concerned Scientists and now with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, wrote to the NRC to inform it of a "false statement" made by Exelon officials in a questionnaire about groundwater collection protection data. Lochbaum informed the NRC that the questionnaire signed by the site vice president at Oyster Creek denied any previous radioactive leaks at the site. He quoted the Exelon official: "There have been no station events requiring remediation efforts at Oyster Creek."

Lochbaum wrote that the statement was "directly and irrefutably contradicted" by a 1982 letter to NRC staff that reported "an unmonitored release of radioactive liquid to the soil" near a waste tank. Lochbaum wrote that the licensee's "inaccurate questionnaire response" was "particularly irksome" because a station groundwater monitoring network had been installed in 1983 as a direct response to the 1982 radioactive leak.

Although a second leak that occurred during Tropical Storm Hannah in September 2008 received little public attention, it drew a strong rebuke from the DEP's senior nuclear official, Dr. Jill Lipoti.

In an October 2008 letter to Exelon, Lipoti, director of the DEP's Bureau of Nuclear Engineering, chastized Exelon for failing to notify the department's hotline within 15 minutes of the discovery of tritium in a puddle near a cut pipe. Exelon had previously assured state officials that it was "confident that no spill or discharge occurred."

"We do not agree," Lipoti wrote, explaining that Exelon's own onsite laboratory found radioactive tritium in the leaked water. When a subsequent re-analysis was performed, the radioactive levels were even higher, "confirming the need to report the apparent radioactive discharge within fifteen minutes." The water was then pumped from the site into storage barrels, and a third analysis again confirmed a positive laboratory reading for elevated levels of tritium. No further analysis could be done because Exelon discarded the original sample of the contaminated water, Lipoti added.

Citing Exelon's "apparent lack of attention to detail with regard to laboratory protocols and procedures," Lipoti further chastized Exelon for disregarding the DEP's rules of notification, Exelon's use of a lab that is not even certified to test for tritium and sloppy lab work that could have resulted in cross-contamination of the samples.

These failed attempts to cover up previous radioactive spills raise the issue of whether Exelon knew or should have known about the pipe leakage before the NRC renewed the aging plant's license to operate for another 20 years. They also make it impossible for the public to trust Exelon to fix this problem so that the aging pipes do not leak again. Although Exelon has assured regulators that it will replace aluminum pipes with stainless steel and will move its buried pipes into aboveground vaults, it has not made any legally binding commitment to do so. This is intolerable. The public deserves to be certain about what will be done and when, especially considering Exelon's past lies and failures to honor its safety commitments.

The public also deserves release of the root cause analysis of the April 2009 tritium spill in its entirety. Did the spill happen before relicensing was announced and was it kept mum until the 20-year green light was given? Were there indications of problems that were ignored? We will never be certain until all of the facts are released for public review. If there's nothing to hide, then there is no need to withhold information. 



To learn about dangers tritium  see

 and  on right menu read  Science for Democratic Action, vol.16 no.1, "Radioactive Rivers and Rain" and "Retiring Reference Man" (August 2009, with supplementary Tables: Tritium Releases and Obama/Waxman/EPA Letters about Reference Man.

Printed version available in late October 2009.