The Indian Point nuclear power plant supplies about 25% of the electricity used by 23 million people in the New York City area. But the four decade-old facility has been leaking radioactive tritium into the groundwater, lately.
According to a letter New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo sent to two commissioners of the Department of Environmental Conservation earlier this month, three of forty wells around the plant show increased levels of radioactive material, and one of them has shot upwards by an astounding 65,000 percent.
‘This is not the first such release of radioactive water at Indian Point, nor is this the first time that Indian Point has experienced significant failure in its operation and maintenance. This failure continues to demonstrate that Indian Point cannot continue to operate in a manner that is protective of public health and the environment.’
A federal regulatory specialist was dispatched to discover the source of the leak.
‘[Entergy spokesperson Jerry] Nappi said the tritium contamination was most likely caused when crews were transferring a volume of water related to a scheduled refueling outage. The power plant runs on two-year fuel cycles, Nappi said; as crews were preparing for an upcoming refueling, some of the water is believed to have leaked from a filtration system into the ground.’
Instead, the inspection found that leaking pipes leading from a water storage tank at Unit 2 allowed the tritium to escape. The pump which would have ordinarily prevented the leaked water from reaching the ground was out of service.
Similar leaks have been found at about three quarters of all nuclear plants in the United States.
A naturally-occurring isotope of hydrogen, tritium is also a byproduct of ‘heavy water’ nuclear reactors which use deuterium, another hydrogen isotope, to control the chain reaction. Tritium must be periodically cleaned out of such systems to prevent build-up.
John J. Kelly, a certified health physicist and former licensing director for nuclear plants in the region, has said that the leak is “absolutely not a biological or environmental concern…It’s more of a regulatory problem than an environmental problem.”
Located on the east bank of the Hudson river, the Indian Point nuclear plant is owned and operated by Entergy, which says that the groundwater on the site is not used for drinking.
Nappi says there is little chance that the tritium will reach the river in detectable quantities.
‘We know from more than 10 years of hydrological studies on the site that [radioactive contaminants] can’t reach drinking water sources in nearby communities.’
But Paul Gallay, president of the watchdog organization Riverkeeper, calls Indian Point “a disaster waiting to happen [which] should be shut down.”
Nor is this the first accident at Indian Point. In recent years, the facility has suffered a fire at Unit 3 which discharged oil into the river and a control rod power failure that forced Unit 2 to temporarily shut down.
Indian Point is currently awaiting a decision by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, which may choose to renew its license for another 20 years.
The facility has become a political football. While the Cuomo administration opposes license renewal, citing the facility’s age and history of accidents, incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer insists that the plant cannot close until the energy is replaced.
‘[A]dvances in alternate power sources, grid management and energy conservation have brought us to the day when the aging, unsafe Indian Point can close.’