WASHINGTON—The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) today announced the industry’s unanimous approval of a voluntary policy to enhance detection, management and communication about inadvertent radiological releases in groundwater that are below federal standards at nuclear power plants.
The announcement came during a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) public meeting held to discuss inadvertent releases. This is the latest in a series of industry-NRC meetings held since last December to evaluate new and better ways to maintain public safety and public confidence despite unplanned releases such as those that have resulted in elevated levels of tritium—a weak radioactive isotope of hydrogen—at some nuclear plants in recent years.
Minute releases of radiation are regulated by the NRC as part of normal nuclear power plant operations. Routine releases from nuclear power plants—well below one millirem per year—are a small fraction of NRC limits. The NRC limit for radiation exposure of the public is 100 millirem per year, and natural background radiation in the United States averages 300 millirem per year. There is no public health and safety impact from inadvertent releases of tritium at nuclear power plants, according to federal and state officials.
The new industrywide program recognizes that, even though radioisotopes have not been detected off-site at levels that would jeopardize public health, the industry should adopt a higher standard of excellence in radiation protection that goes beyond what NRC regulations require, said Ralph Andersen, NEI’s chief health physicist.
“Even in the instances where inadvertent radiological releases in groundwater occur at levels that do not require formal reporting, we should inform local and state leaders and the public as a matter of openness and transparency,” Andersen said. “This is an essential part of maintaining public trust and confidence. The nuclear energy industry’s unanimous approval of this voluntary groundwater protection initiative reflects our commitment to improve the management of these situations and to be a responsible member of the communities where our plants operate.”
The new policy requires that by July 31, every company operating or decommissioning a nuclear power plant will:
Where appropriate, identify and schedule implementation of a company- or site-specific action plan to assure timely detection and effective response to inadvertent radiological releases in groundwater. This step is designed to prevent migration of even very low levels of radioactive material off plant sites and to quantify impacts on the eventual decommissioning of facilities.
Voluntarily submit a 30-day report to the NRC for any sample of on-site groundwater that is or may be used as a source of drinking water, but exceeds the criteria in the company’s existing radiological monitoring program for off-site water samples.
Voluntarily inform state and local officials, with follow-up notification to the NRC, as appropriate, regarding on-site leaks and spills into groundwater and on-site or off-site water sample results exceeding established criteria in the radiological monitoring program.
Nuclear power plants are required by the NRC to regularly monitor and report the presence of radioactive material in the environment. This voluntary policy recognizes that public expectations can exceed the regulatory requirements.
At a few nuclear plants, environmental monitoring programs have found higher-than-expected concentrations of tritium in groundwater within the plant boundary. While the majority of groundwater containing tritium remains on plant property, groundwater with tritium in a few instances has migrated into areas outside plant boundaries. A major element of the industry initiative is to prevent this from happening in the future.
As the result of the approval of this measure to pro-actively address inadvertent radiological releases, all companies that operate nuclear power plants have agreed to implement its provisions.
“The bottom line is that the nuclear energy industry is beefing up our system to prevent inadvertent radiological releases, and we will be transparent in doing so,” Andersen said.
The Nuclear Energy Institute is the nuclear energy industry’s policy organization. This news release and additional information about nuclear energy are available on NEI’s Internet site at http://www.nei.org.