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Rapid Response: AP Tritium Story Fails to Provide Context Take Into Account Industry Oversight, June 23, 2011

Contrary to the impression created by the Associated Press article, “Tritium Leaks Found at Many Nuke Sites,” the industry takes a proactive approach to monitoring, detecting and fixing any leaks that might cause an unintended release of radioactive material. It is also important to note that no drinking water supply has ever exceeded the allowable limit set by the EPA for tritium.
 
Below, we provide some background on tritium and take a deeper look at the article’s claims.

 


 

Background:
Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen. In nature, it is produced in the upper atmosphere when cosmic rays strike atmospheric gases, which in time fall to earth as rain. But it also is a byproduct of electricity generation at nuclear power plants.

According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, no drinking water supply has exceeded the allowable limit set by the EPA for tritium in the Safe Drinking Water Act. No public health or safety risk has resulted from tritium releases at commercial nuclear power plants.

 


 

Myth: The article says, “… the NRC and industry consider the leaks a public relations problem, not a public health or accident threat ... .”

The Facts: The industry considers any unintended release of radioactive material to be unacceptable.

While elevated tritium levels have been detected at some nuclear power plants as a result of leaks or other unplanned releases into groundwater, none of these tritium releases has exceeded regulatory limits and there has been no public health threat as a result of the leaks.

The higher-than-expected levels of tritium initially were found through the plants’ environmental monitoring programs, which are required under federal regulations for precisely this purpose. Voluntary programs are in place to enhance capabilities for early detection of tritium in groundwater.

In those instances where leaks occurred, companies that operate nuclear power plants are committed to fixing the problem, working with state and federal regulators.

 


 

Myth: The article says, “The industry tends to inspect piping when it must be dug up for some other reason ... .”

The Facts: The nuclear energy industry takes a proactive approach to monitoring, detecting and fixing any leaks at nuclear plant sites that might cause an unintended release of radioactive material.

The industry routinely monitors the environment for radioactivity around nuclear energy facilities—in surface and groundwater, in shoreline sediments and in samples from such food sources as milk, fish and other animals. Routine monitoring ensures that the industry is operating its facilities safely and within the strict regulations established by the NRC.

Plants that detect unintended releases of tritium identify the source, correct it and implement measures to prevent a recurrence. In some cases, companies replace pipe or alter its installation so it is easier to monitor for leaks—for example, moving buried pipe to concrete vaults that workers can access more easily. Other measures include installing additional monitoring wells on plant property.

 


 

Groundwater and Underground Piping Monitoring

The industry has programs in place to monitor groundwater and underground piping at plant sites.

In 2006, the industry began a voluntary groundwater protection program involving all nuclear power plant operators to improve the management of situations involving radiological releases to groundwater. Every company that operates a U.S. nuclear power plant has committed to inform local, state and federal authorities of an unintended release even if it is below the threshold for reporting to the NRC.

In 2009, the industry adopted a voluntary program to improve the management of underground piping at nuclear energy facilities. This program monitors the integrity of piping that carries cooling water, waste water and fuel oils to and from nuclear power plants.

 


 

For more information, see the NRC’s Web page on tritium.

For more on the industry’s “Initiative to Improve Integrity of Underground Piping” see this press release.