Tritium leak: Post-quake radiation plume stokes concern

When the 5.8 magnitude earthquake struck Louisa County last August, with its epicenter just 11 miles from the North Anna nuclear generating plant, environmental groups warned that radioactive leaks were likely. It turns out that they were right.

Dominion Virginia Power has revealed that an elevated level of a radioactive substance called tritium has been found in groundwater near the plant, and the discovery has nuclear watchdogs scoffing at the company's efforts to downplay potential danger to the public.

"Tritium is highly mobile," says Paul Gunter of Beyond Nuclear, a Maryland-based nonprofit which has long expressed concern about the integrity of miles of underground pipes carrying radioactive water at North Anna.

"I don't think that 100 aftershocks have helped the integrity of all this buried pipe," says Gunter. "It only increases our concern since very likely there will continue to be aftershocks and perhaps more big ones."

The impending one-year anniversary of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami which resulted in catastrophic radiation release from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has raised concerns that U.S. plants could be similarly vulnerable, and Gunter asserts that nuclear energy companies and government agencies haven't made necessary changes in the wake of that March 11, 2010 international disaster.

He's particularly critical of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for allowing Dominion to reopen after just two months despite the company's admission that massive casks containing spent fuel had shifted on their concrete pads and that North Anna may not have been built to withstand such a significant temblor.

The best known radioactive substances used in nuclear power may be uranium and plutonium– and either one can conjure images of post-apocalyptic landscapes as seen in the nightmare-inducing 1983 TV movie The Day After. But they're not the only elements that can pose risk to humans and animals.

Though only weakly radioactive, tritium leaking from North Anna is a radioactive hydrogen isotope that can pose a health risk at high enough levels– particularly to pregnant women and their developing fetuses.

According to Dominion spokesperson Richard Zuercher, the elevated tritium level was found at only one of 10 testing locations immediately around the plant and was far below the federal threshold for human risk.

"There's no drinking water under the reactor," notes Zuercher. "We do know that the tritium is not flowing toward the lake, and it's not at any levels that are harmful."

While Dominion is now working on finding the source of the tritium, Gunter dismisses the idea that the leak is nothing to worry about, suggesting that if there's one leak, there are likely to be more. Most disturbing, he says, is the fact that the pipes around North Anna are underground, making them "uninspectable, unmaintainable and, should a leak occur, uncontainable."

Gunter's not the only one concerned.

"It shows something's going on in the plant," says scientist Dick Ball, a consultant to the Sierra Club whose work contributed to Al Gore's 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. The level reported by Dominion, 53,000 picocuries per liter, is more than double the federal drinking water standard of 20,000 picocuries.

"It has to be a concern," says Ball. "The question is, if you get it at a certain distance away, there must be a plume leaking out from the plant in some way. How big is the plume of tritium, and what's the rate it's going in?" he wonders. "You'd need to do something about it before it continues."

Gunter says the solution is clear, even if could be pricey for Dominion: moving the pipes above-ground.

"There is simply no excuse for not getting to work and making these pipes accessible so they can be inspected, maintained, and contained," says Gunter, citing such an action by the Exelon corporation at its plant in Oyster Bay, New Jersey after tritium was found to be leaking from buried pipes in 2009.

"We have the precedent that the operators can make these buried pipes accessible," he says, noting that tritium leaks at two other U.S. nuclear plants in Illinois and Vermont and criticizing the federal government's system of allowing nuclear plants to self-inspect and self-report.

Other steps Gunter would like Dominion to take include an immediate and ongoing distribution of bottled water to residents in a 10-mile radius around the plant and the distribution of potassium iodide, a compound that prevents the human thyroid gland from absorbing cancer-causing radioactive iodine.

"The fact that the company is putting its own financial margins in front of public safety speaks volumes about the corporate greed that has always been there with nuclear power," Gunter claims.

Zuercher, however, contends that Dominion is serious about public safety. When the plant was shut for two months after the earthquake, he notes, Dominion performed equipment inspections including checking the reactor coolant system and digging up some pipes and conducting pressure tests on underground pipes.

"We demonstrated to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that there had been no damage to our safety systems or the reactor structures important to nuclear safety," says Zuercher.

As for Gunter's suggestion about potassium iodide, Zuercher says the distribution of that compound remains a state responsibility. According to Steve Harrison, acting director of the Division of Radiological Health for Virginia Department of Health, there's plenty of potassium iodide stockpiled and a plan to get it to the public in the event of a nuclear emergency at North Anna.

Distributing it ahead of an emergency, he says, doesn't work.

"Years ago, we actually participated in a voluntary distribution program," says Zuercher, "and we found that people lost it, misplaced it. Our concern was it would not be available if it were needed."

Harrison also echoes Zuercher's message that the public shouldn't be alarmed or concerned about contaminated drinking water. The Department of Health does its own independent air and water testing around the plant on a regular basis, Harrison says, and there have been no problems detected.

Gunter, however, says the state and federal nuclear regulations are backwards, with the energy company's bottom line valued above public safety.

"The way the system is set up it's leak first, fix later," he says. "And it's not just this leak; it's the impact of all these leaks and the chronic exposure to the public not just today but 30 years from today."


Thank you for your coverage of the North Anna Nuclear Power Station. The plant was the focus of many news stories in the weeks after the quake but most media outlets have moved on or, as the Louisa weekly does, simply regurgitate Dominion press releases.

Here is an in-depth look at post-quake North Anna and its controversial history published in October in the Fluvanna Review and the monthly magazine Louisa Life.

You give the word and I'm fleeing.

Va Power was lightly fined in the 1970s for concealing the fact that they found, yet built the reactors on an earthquake fault. They want to add another unit at the same site. And why not...Dominion's risk is covered by taxpayers through the Price-Anderson Act.
Evidence over the years of self-reporting, insiders regulating, rubber-stamped license extensions, and the usual corporate "legal" coverage, etc, lead one to wonder if the nuclear energy industry is set up systemically to run the reactors until they fail.
That is a serious possibility that should be studied by management and safety experts who are not associated with the nuclear industry.

I think moving the pipes above ground would be a great idea, but disagree with this comment:

"He's particularly critical of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for allowing Dominion to reopen after just two months despite the company's admission that massive casks containing spent fuel had shifted on their concrete pads and that North Anna may not have been built to withstand such a significant temblor."

The casks can withstand a freight train hitting them. The fact they moved a little on their pads is of no concern. What you might be more concerned about is that the waste is there to begin with.

We really do need to harvest the largest sea of clean coal in the world in Utah, the one Clinton shut off as part of the globalist agenda of building up China and taking down America. He got a huge illegal re-election campaign donation from the biggest coal company in China right before shutting it off to American coal companies, the Chinese stock doubled overnight, our coal companies stock plummeted, now China's building two new coal power plants a week laughing all the way to prosperity and we get regulations on ours and watch our economy evaporate while China's plants can belch out whatever they want, our coal power plants are very clean but the EPA detects all the jetstream fallout in the USA from China's plants and blames it on our plants which are clean, knowing all along it's from China. And for one billion dollars they could secure the 400 nuclear reactors from all melting down at once (an not being able to be fixed until the grid is fixed which will take years) when the mega solar event fries the power grid (by installing upgraded transformers), but they haven't because it would divert attention from the devilish carbon dioxide which plants breathe and we're supposed to give up everything we have for and cause tens of millions of people a year to die of starvation and malnutrion due to carbon regulations to "save the Earth". Read the article by Mat Stein

When I was in middle school I watched a movie of a big power plant belching out water vapor and I was horrified because I was under the impression it was pollution. I was thinking "how could they do this to our planet". Then I grew up, and realized it was just water vapor! Oh, the joy of that day...

Tritium in the water; Cesium-137 in the milk and air thanks to Japan's nuclear meltdowns; and every nuclear power plant is allowed to release radiation into the environment.

Nuclear energy is not worth the cancer risks.

I heard about this story first at www dot enenews dot com

P.A. don't worry about the Cesium -137, the EPA raised safe levels for food and water by twenty five thousand percent, so the levels aren't dangerous anymore.