Tritium trouble? Nuke fears rise with quake, self-policing
After the nuclear catastrophe that followed the earthquake and tsunami in Japan last spring, some Central Virginia activists cautioned that a similar nightmare could unfold right here at the Dominion-operated North Anna nuclear generating plant in Louisa County. Despite Dominion's assurances that the plant made it through the August 23 earthquake unscathed, activists contend that the quake, which measured 5.8 on the Richter Scale and had an epicenter just eleven miles from the plant, may have been more catastrophic than anyone is admitting. New information bolsters their fears.
On Monday, August 29, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced that the quake may, in fact, have produced force that exceeded the North Anna plant's specifications and that the Commission is sending a special Augmented Inspection Team to assess the damage.
"Initial reviews determined the plant may have exceeded the ground motion for which it was designed," says the release, which also assures that "no significant damage to safety systems has been identified."
That's small consolation to one prominent nuclear watchdog, who says it's not what's above ground that gives him the greatest concern.
"Central to the issue is miles of buried pipe under the plant that carry radioactive water," says Paul Gunter, director of a nonprofit group called Beyond Nuclear.
Gunter cites recent problems with underground pipes at nuclear plants in Illinois and Vermont, where millions of gallons of water contaminated with the radioactive hydrogen isotope tritium seeped into groundwater, even as the power companies that owned the plants denied for years that it was happening.
The result of those leaks and their public concealment by the Exelon and Intergy power companies– at the Braidwood Station plant in Illionis and at the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant– was not additional government oversight as one might expect, says Gunter, but merely the creation of two voluntary programs that allow the power companies to inspect their own pipes and groundwater and then report the findings to the Commission.
"Here's an industry that has hidden these leaks that is now self-reporting and overseeing itself to the NRC," says a disgusted Gunter.
Indeed, at North Anna, newly arrived government inspectors won't be conducting their own tests of the miles of underground pipes. And the assumption that those pipes didn't sustain damage during the earthquake, which knocked two Louisa County schools out of commission and caused cracks in the Washington Monument some 90 miles away, might be laughable to Gunter if he weren't convinced of potentially grave public danger.
"How can an uninspectable, inaccessible buried pipe have integrity?" Gunter asks. "When this Augmented Inspection Team walks onto the site, they'll be walking over the buried pipe that could be leaking."
"We have a limited number of inspector resources," acknowledges Commission spokesperson Roger Hannah, who says when it comes to the pipes, inspectors will "make sure we see what [Dominion is] doing."
Hannah scoffs at the notion that tritium, already considered by the Commission a much lesser danger than uranium, could leak from damaged pipes into the groundwater and go unnoticed by inspectors.
"If you had some issue, you'd see some leakage fairly quickly," says Hannah, noting that no tests have revealed radioactive leakage anywhere at the North Anna.
Dominion spokesperson Richard Zuercher also offers reassurance that all is well at North Anna, above and under-ground.
"We do have ways to detect if there's any leakage in water," says Zuercher, who says the only damage at the facility was "cosmetic" and didn't affect nuclear function and who insists Dominion will "do whatever is necessary to verify that everything is intact."
Gunter, however, says he believes Dominion's not going far enough to protect the public.
"Given the industry history and what's been done before, Dominion should be distributing bottled water to the town of Mineral and to the residents of Lake Anna," he says. "Indefinitely."