|Vermont Yankee among troubled
By Beth Daley Globe Staff / January 31, 2010
VERNON, Vt. - The nuclear industry, once an environmental pariah, is
recasting itself as green as it attempts to extend the life of many power
plants and build new ones. But a leak of radioactive water at Vermont Yankee,
along with similar incidents at more than 20 other US nuclear plants in
recent years, has kindled doubts about the reliability, durability, and
maintenance of the nation's aging nuclear installations.
Then earlier this month, Vermont Yankee's owner, Louisiana-based Entergy Corp., told state and federal regulators it had discovered elevated levels of tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, in a 30-foot-deep monitoring well on the property as part of the voluntary industry effort to look for leaks. Two weeks later, Entergy said it found much higher levels of tritium - along with Cobalt-60, another radioactive isotope - in a 40-foot-long trench that houses pipes. It is unclear whether the two areas of contamination are related.
Tritium, while found in nature in small amounts, is produced as a byproduct in nuclear power plants. The US Environmental Protection Agency says tritiated water increases the risk of cancer if someone drinks it, but the radiation is low-level and leaves the body quickly. The agency has set a drinking water standard for tritium of 20.000 picocuries - a measure of radioactivity - per liter.
The test well, which is not used for drinking water, has registered increasingly higher levels of tritium in recent weeks - topping out at 29.000 picocuries per liter. The trench had levels in the millions of picocuries per liter. Vermont Yankee is drilling seven more wells to see how widespread the problem is.
"Obviously we are taking this very seriously," said plant spokesman Rob Williams, as he guided a reporter through a maze of security fencing to view one of the monitoring wells near the Connecticut River. He stressed that the company was doing everything it could to figure out the extent of the problem and its source. The plant told regulators about the elevated levels as soon as they were found, even though they were below levels required to be reported, he said.
Across the country, tritium leaks have not prevented re-licensing of the nation's nuclear plants by the NRC, which has extended the operating life of 59 reactors and is considering or expected to consider 37 other applications in the next seven years.
In December, the agency issued a report noting that an evaluation of buried piping showed that corrosion, where leaks can spring from, tends to occur in small areas where anti-corrosion coating is damaged. The agency concluded that its oversight of the issue is adequate, but spokesman Neil Sheehan said in an e-mail that the NRC is "a learning agency" and would continue to review any new information and change policies as needed to ensure safety.
The leaks at Vermont Yankee have caused a credibility problem for the plant's owner. State officials have charged that Entergy officials misled them on a number of occasions by denying the plant had buried piping that could carry radioactive material. Last week, Governor Jim Douglas, a longtime supporter of the plant, asked legislators to delay a vote needed for the plant's re-licensing. He also called for a state board to stop considering Entergy's request to spin off Vermont Yankee into a subsidiary with its other nuclear plants, a move that the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, a consumer and environmental non-profit, says could limit the parent company's financial liability when the plant shuts down.
"What has happened at Vermont Yankee is a breach of trust that cannot be tolerated," Douglas said in a statement last week. Until questions are answered, he said, "decisions about the long-term future of the plant should not be made."
Entergy, in a statement, said that it was disappointed by Douglas's decision but is conducting an investigation "to get to the bottom of how and why the company provided conflicting information to state officials."
The Brattleboro-based New England Coalition, longtime critics of nuclear energy, said the buried-pipe problem at Vermont Yankee underscores a far larger one for the nation - its nuclear plants are old.
"It is the canary in the coal mine," said coalition codirector Clay Turnbull.
Beth Daley can be reached at email@example.com