Radioactivity in groundwater at Peach Bottom demonstrates "Leak First, Fix Later": industry self-regulated in self-interest
In April 2015, a monitoring well at Exelon’s Peach Bottom nuclear power plant in Delta, Pennsylvania tested positive for a significant level of tritium contamination in groundwater. It is another example of a decades-old pattern of nuclear reactors leaking radioactivity and a weak regulatory system that fails to openly address and fix the problem as required in federal licensing agreements. Beyond Nuclear publicly disclosed the radioactive leak to media along with the release of its updated investigative report “Leak First, Fix Later: Uncontrolled and Unmonitored Radioactive Releases from Nuclear Power Plants.”
Exelon’s 2005 disclosure of ten-year old cover-up of a series of leaks and spills releasing millions of gallons of radioactivity into groundwater and the public right-of-way around its Braidwood nuclear power plant in Illinois led to an industry-wide scandal of unreported, uncontrolled and unmonitored radioactive contamination of water resources around nuclear power plants. The fact that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) turned a blind eye on these leaks and violations of licensing agreements further spotlighted the complacency and complicity of the regulator in failing to enforce reactor performance criteria governing the required control and monitoring of radioactive waste water pathways at the reactors.
“Leak First, Fix Later” finds that U.S. nuclear power industry continues to experience uncontrolled leaks and spills of radioactive water because buried pipes and tanks remain inaccessible to inspection and maintenance. The NRC’s lackadaisical response over the years has allowed the industry to self-regulate groundwater protection in its own self-interest largely with impunity.
Following the industry scandal for failure to control and report radioactive leaks, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) commandeered national groundwater protection policy away from the NRC with a “voluntary initiative” to self-report unauthorized releases to the environment. But the industry self-reporting system, as the Peach Bottom leak confirms, has singularly failed to address and prevent reoccurring leaks and leaves the impacted public intentionally in the dark, the report finds.
According to the Exelon Peach Bottom leak memorandum, water contaminated with tritium had pooled on the floor inside the turbine building made its way outside into the groundwater monitoring test well. Following Beyond Nuclear’s disclosure in the media, Exelon “declined” to publicly identify what component or system was leaking. While the NRC made no initial request of the company to identify the leak source and how the uncontrolled leak made its way out of the turbine building structure into groundwater outside, the agency told media they would be looking into it.
Uncontrolled and unmonitored releases of radioactive isotopes migrating into the water table can remain dangerous for decades and longer. Tritium, radioactive hydrogen, is clinically shown to cause cancer, birth defects and genetic mutations. Today’s groundwater can be tomorrow’s drinking water. This uncontrolled problem must no longer be trivialized by industry and regulator leaving others to bear the future consequences and costs.