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AP: Radioactive tritium leaks have occurred at three-quarters of U.S. nuclear sites

21 Jun 2011  |   Emma Brown

Tags: Clean Water, General Environment

Radioactive tritium has leaked from 48 out of 65 U.S. Nuclear sites, often into groundwater, an AP investigation found. 

Although no leaks have reached public waterways, in several instances tritium has contaminated privately-owned drinking wells in Illinois and Minnesota, and leached into an aquifer and discharge canal that emptied into New Jersey’s Barnegat Bay. In other cases, tritium levels have been detected in contaminated groundwater surrounding the nuclear sites at 100 to 750 times the limit permitted by the EPA.

The number of leaks has been especially proliferate in the past five years and is expected to rise as corroded pipes built in the 1960’s and 1970’s continue to rust. Tritium leaks, however, may actually be a mere foreshadowing of potential problems to come. Because many pipes carry cooling water to the nuclear sites, a leak could lead to a meltdown. The failure of aged electrical cables used to carry operational signals is also worrisome. An NRC report found that over the course of three decades, electrical cables—which, because they are encased in cement and buried deep in the ground are difficult to replace—failed 83 times, with most of those accidents occurring after ten years of use. 

Meanwhile, federal regulators continue to extend licenses to aged nuclear sites across the country. Sixty-six nuclear reactors have been approved for 20-year extensions, beyond their initial 40-year licenses, and 16 more await pending approval.

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