Just days after it received a new 20-year license extension from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in New Jersey was found to be leaking radioactive tritium .
Located about 60 miles east of Philadelphia in Lacey Township, New Jersey, the Oyster Creek plant is the oldest in the United States, and the tritium leak from underground pipes that was discovered on April 9, 2009 may have spread further than officials previously thought.
New Jersey environmental officials now say that radioactive tritium has leached into the nearby water aquifer and that the plant’s owners need to install new monitoring wells to keep tabs on the spread of the chemical. Commissioner Bob Martin is worried about the tritium — currently being found at concentrations 50 times higher than those allowed by law — which has been slowly spreading underground at one to three feet a day.
Sure, it would take 14 or 15 years before the tainted water reaches the nearest private or commercial drinking water wells at the current rate, but the elevated levels alone are enough to worry state officials. Tritium is a type of hydrogen that occurs both naturally in the environment at very low levels and may be released as steam from nuclear reactors in controlled, monitored conditions.
In high concentrations at sustained levels, however, exposure to tritium increases the risk of developing cancer. However, because it emits very low energy radiation and leaves the body relatively quickly, for a given amount of activity ingested, tritium is one of the least dangerous radionuclides and the chances of radioactive mutations are unlikely .
While it is still unclear what the cause is, the fact that 50 dead fish were recently found in the waters surrounding the Oyster Creek plant is raising the hackles of state environmental officials. “There is a problem here,” said environmental Commissioner Bob Martin .
“I am worried about the continuing spread of the tritium into the groundwater and its gradual moving toward wells in the area,” he said. “This is not something that can wait. That would be unacceptable.”
Oyster Creek’s owners, Chicago-based Exelon, say the cause of the leak was corrected soon after the leak was found and that the contamination is not a new issue. “We have been monitoring wells on site, and the tritium concentration is down steadily, sometimes by as much as 90 percent,” said plant spokesman David Benson. “We are drilling more wells, and we will work closely with the state. We have been all along,” he added, questioning the need for Martin’s order.
The tritium leak at the Oyster Creek plant along with the tritium leak at the Yankee Nuclear Power Station in Vermont are emblematic of a trend in America’s nuclear power infrastructure: the plants built in the 1960s and 1970s are beginning to show their age. And as a new generation of nuclear power plants in the United States is poised for lift-off, this and other the nuclear waste issues will persist .
Oyster Creek generates 636 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 600,000 homes a year, and provides nine percent of New Jersey’s electricity.
Article by Timothy B. Hurst appearing courtesy Celsias.
photo: NRC File Photo