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Charge Three: Let Leaking Pipes Lie: Ceding Oversight to Self-Regulation

The Problem: The highly-publicized leaks of radioactive hydrogen – or tritium – from buried pipes at the Braidwood (IL), Oyster Creek (NJ) and Vermont Yankee (VT) nuclear power plants are just three examples of a more widespread and longstanding problem. Leaking U.S. reactors are in fact ubiquitous. There is evidence of 15 radioactive leaks from March 2009 through April 16, 2010 from buried pipe systems at 13 different reactor sites.  At least 102 reactor units are now documented to have had recurring radioactive leaks into groundwater from 1963 through February 2009. Groundwater can reach well water and drinking water supplies, putting surrounding populations at significant health risk.

The Charge: The NRC has replaced its own oversight responsibilities in favor of industry self-regulation. Instead of mandating compliance with established license requirements for the control and monitoring of buried pipe systems carrying radioactive effluent, the NRC cedes responsibility to industry voluntary initiatives that will add years onto the resolution of a decades-old environmental and public health issue. Of further concern, the agency and the industry continue to downplay and trivialize the health risks of prolonged exposure to tritium which is shown to cause cancer, genetic mutations and birth defects. The delinquency of the NRC is made more alarming by the fact that the nuclear industry has deliberately misrepresented the truth about its leaking reactors to state governments, most dramatically in Illinois and Vermont. Given the history of untrustworthiness of the nuclear industry, it is even more important to have a vigilant and responsible regulator.

Next Steps: Congress must include this NRC pattern of ceding oversight to the industry it is supposed to regulate, in a sweeping Congressional investigation of the agency. Regulatory oversight, authority and enforcement must be strengthened. Buried pipes must be promptly replaced so that systems carrying radioactive effluent can be inspected, monitored, maintained and contained in the event of leak. The nuclear industry must be held accountable for radioactive releases to air, water and soil. There must be more public transparency describing the source, cause and extent of radioactive releases from nuclear power plants. Radiation protection standards must be strengthened and applied consistently nationwide.

Background: A documented analysis of the widespread leaks from buried — and inaccessible — pipes at U.S. nuclear power plant sites can be found in the Beyond Nuclear report: Leak First, Fix Later: Uncontrolled and Unmonitored Radioactive Releases from Nuclear Power Plants. The report examines radioactive leaks in Illinois, New Jersey, Michigan, New York and Vermont that illuminate concerns over continuing groundwater contamination, the accelerating deterioration of buried pipes, the lack of integrity of industry’s reporting of leaks and pipes and the questionable replacement of federal oversight and enforcement with industry “voluntary initiatives.”