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U.S.A.: Tritium leak at Pilgrim

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Mary Lampert

Safety and PR officials at Entergy, the Louisiana-based owner of the Pilgrim nuke plant at Plymouth, Mass., are scrambling to find the source of a radioactive tritium leak that, after new monitoring wells were dug in May, flared to unacceptable during levels July and continues to show evidence of a leak.

Published reports and sources tapped by Northampton Media reveal that state public health officials are holding urgent meetings to deal with the Pilgrim’s tritium leak, and that Pilgrim plant officials meet first thing every morning to deal with the issue.

While the Pilgrim leak, documented in late spring, amounts to far less of the radioactive material than was found at Vermont Yankee last year, the fact that the reactor is located next to Cape Cod Bay and is less than 40 miles from Boston, and 20 miles as the seagull flies from Provincetown, is cause for concern.

The radioactive element tritium is a byproduct of nuclear plants, and is measured in picocuries per liter. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “acceptable level” for tritium in drinking water is 20,000 picocuries per liter, many times higher than the level considered safe by some states (including California, which uses 400 picocuries) and some countries (Canada’s standard is 540 picocuries).

Pilgrim’s radiation leak comes at an awkward time for Entergy, since the Pilgrim plant is nearing the end of a 20-year relicensing application for the 38-year-old nuclear power plant ­  especially after what happened at the Entergy’s other nuclear plant in the region, Vermont Yankee. Vermont Yankee’s operating license expires in a year and a half, but in February the Vermont Senate voted 26-4 against allowing the Public Service Board to issue a Certificate of Public Good, required for Entergy to operate the plant for an additional 20 years past March 2012 (see Nuclear Monitor 705, 12 March 2010: Vermont Senate shocks industry with 26-4 vote to close Vermont Yankee)

That turn of events came after dangerous tritium levels were found in groundwater last fall. Leaky underground pipes, like those suspected at Pilgrim, were blamed for tritium levels that were many times higher than federal limits. Although Entergy has said it has found, fixed and remediated the Vermont Yankee’s radioactive leak, relicensing is no sure thing.
In a report issued early September, the Vermont Department of Health detailed its investigation so far into the tritium leaks, and estimates that about 245,000 gallons of “tritium-contaminated groundwater” has been pumped from the plant site (1 U.S. gallon is 3.785 liter). The agency says the water contains tritium concentrations in the range of about 76,000 picocuries per liter. The report, however, documents that some monitoring wells there are detecting tritium levels as high as 370,000 picocuries.

At Pilgrim this May, a new groundwater monitoring well on the ocean side of the plant immediately began showing tritium levels 5-10 times higher than the other 11 test wells. And after that initial reading of 5,810 picocuries per liter, the well – dubbed MW-205 – continued to reveal rising tritium levels. On July 7, the numbers at MW-205 peaked at 25,552 picocuries, higher than even the EPA’s suspect standard of 20,000. By August 9, the state Department of Public Health’s latest published readings, tritium levels had dropped to a still-alarming level of over 12,000 picocuries.

Amazingly, groundwater monitoring at the Pilgrim plant was done voluntarily, and only started in 2007 when six test wells were dug; testing, though, was sketchy at best until April 2008. Critics of the plant’s monitoring, including the citizens group Pilgrim Watch, have called for the installation of many more wells to monitor ground water.

Samples taken by Entergy are separately analyzed by the company and by the Massachusetts Environmental Radiation Laboratory.

The Pilgrim plant is located on the edge of Cape Cod Bay, south of Boston  it was built by the Bechtel Corporation, opened in 1972, and was originally run by Boston Edison. Its maximum operating power capacity is about 688 megawatts. Over 100,000 people live within the ten-mile Emergency Planning Zone (EPZ) radius. The area is the fastest growing in the state - over 600,000 live on Cape Cod, directly South of Pilgrim. New Orleans-based Entergy bought Pilgrim in November 1999. Entergy Corporation, 2004, is the second-largest nuclear generator in the United States with annual revenues of over $9 billion and approximately 14,000 employees. In 1999, Entergy paid US$80 million for Pilgrim, buying it from Boston Edison. Only US$13 million of the price was for the facility and the 1,600-acre plant site. The remainder of the price was for the nuclear fuel.

After high levels of tritium were discovered at Pilgrim, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was notified. The federal agency issued an incident report, which caught the attention of some journalists in Plymouth and Boston, but the news stories were generally ignored by other media sources in the region. Curiously, even the NRC’s own “Event Notification Report,” dated July 21, 2010, failed to document the peak levels of 25,000 picocuries, citing instead a level of 11,072 picocuries sampled a month earlier. No other incident reports could be found on a recent search of the NRC web site.

Some news stories gave brief, one-time reports citing much lower tritium-level readings and quoting only plant spokesman David Tarantino, who said public health and safety were not impacted “in any way.” There was no follow-up. The Boston Globe ran a few stories which, while not exactly hard-hitting, did reveal some startling items. One, in a July 14 Globe story, was a statement by plant flack Tarantino, who claimed the high tritium levels were due to “washout” from water vapor returning to the ground as rain. The same article quoted Ralph Anderson, a top official for The Nuclear Energy Institute, trade-group organization for the nuclear industry, as saying the discovery of tritium showed the safety systems in place worked just fine.

Dissatisfied with the official oversight of Pilgrim, Pilgrim Watch has stepped into the breach on a number of fronts. While continuing its opposition to Pilgrim’s relicensing, the group filed a petition in August asking the NRC to order Entergy to immediately perform an updated hydrological assessment of the area under and around the Pilgrim plant. “This is necessary,” the Pilgrim Watch petition reads, “to provide reasonable assurance that the leaks are not occurring so that piping and other buried components are able to perform their intended safety function (and) for Entergy to [be] in compliance with the Industry Ground Water Protection Initiative at Pilgrim Station that they agreed to follow. . ..”

The petition includes testimony on groundwater monitoring by Dr. David Ahlfeld, a University of Massachusetts-Amherst engineering professor who heads the university’s Groundwater Management Group and is also an expert working with Pilgrim Watch. Pilgrim Watch Director Mary Lampert cites Ahlfeld’s analysis that Pilgrim’s 12 monitoring wells may have been dug in the wrong spots. The monitoring-well placement, she writes, were fixed using a 1967 hydrology study, conducted long before the power plant was built. “No subsurface investigations have been performed for over 40 years, as they clearly should have been,” Lampert concluded.

Massachusetts’ Governor Deval Patrick and U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey have also gotten into the act this year, asking the NRC to get tough on radioactive leaks; Patrick called for the NRC to suspend relicensing of both Vermont Yankee and Pilgrim until the leak issues are resolved. In Patrick’s Feb. 9, 2010 letter to the NRC Chairman and other commissioners, he asked the NRC to order “extensive testing for leaks of tritium and other radioactive substances at both Vermont Yankee and Pilgrim” and to halt “any further consideration of the relicensing of both plants until the leak issues are resolved.”

In his position as chairman of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Energy and The Environment Subcommittee, Markey wrote NRC Chairman Jaczko on July 15 this year, after reading a Globereport on Pilgrim’s tritium leak. “Sadly, this appears to be just another in a long line of failures of buried piping systems and our nation’s nuclear plants,” Markey wrote. “This lack of a serious and comprehensive (NRC) inspection regime for buried piping systems has long been a concern of mine.. . .The current inspection regime for buried pipes – physical inspections conducted only in those rare instances when pipes are dug out for other purposes – is incapable of ensuring the integrity of decades-old piping systems.. . . “Other industries have figured out how to inspect their buried pipes in a proactive and comprehensive fashion,” Markey concluded. “How many more failures does the nuclear industry and the NRC need before they admit that aging buried systems need additional attention?”

Sources: 'Pilgrim we have a problem', 6 September 2010 at /
Contact: Pilgrim Watch,   c/o Mary Lampert, 148 Washington Street, Duxbury, MA 02332, USA.