Minnesota regulators knew four months ago that radioactive waste had leaked from a nuclear power plant at Monticello — but they didn’t announce anything about the leak until this week.
The delay in notifying the public of the November leak raised questions about public safety and transparency, but industry experts said Friday there was no threat to public health. They said that Xcel Energy voluntarily notified state agencies and reported the tritium leak to the Nuclear Regulatory Authority shortly after it was confirmed and that the leak of 400,000 gallons (1.5 million liters) of radioactive water never reached the extent that would have required a public notification.
“This is something we struggle with because there is such concern about anything nuclear,” said Victoria Mettling, a spokeswoman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “The concern is very understandable. That is why I want to point out the fact that the public in Minnesota, the people, the community close to the plant, were not and are not in danger.”
State officials said they were aware of the leak in November, but had waited for more information before making a public announcement.
“We are aware of the presence of tritium in one monitoring well, but Xcel has not yet determined the source and location of the leak,” Minnesota Pollution Control Agency spokesman Michael Rafferty said Thursday. “Now that we have all the information about where the leak occurred, how much groundwater leakage occurred and that the contaminated groundwater has bypassed the original site, we are sharing that information.”
Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that occurs naturally in the environment and is a common by-product of nuclear plant operations. It emits a weak form of beta radiation that does not travel far and cannot penetrate human skin, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Authority.
Health risks will only occur if people consume fairly large amounts of tritium, said Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists. That risk is contained if the column remains on the company’s website, Xcel Energy and Minnesota officials said.
If regulatory officials are sure it hasn’t left the site, he said, they don’t have to worry about their safety, adding that companies usually take action when monitoring wells at a site detect elevated levels of contaminants such as tritium.
There is no official requirement for nuclear plants to report all tritium leaks to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Metling said. Instead, Xcel Energy previously agreed to report some tritium leaks to the state. When Xcel Energy shares information with the state, it also shares it with the Commission.
The commission posted a notice about the leak on its website on November 23, noting that the plant had reported it to the state the day before. The report classified the leak as not an emergency. The notice said the source of the tritium was being investigated at the time.
Moreover, there was no widespread notification to the public before Thursday.
The disclosure requirements rest with the facility, Rafferty said, and state agencies would have promptly notified residents if there was an imminent threat to health and the environment.
Rafferty said the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency decided to share information about its role in overseeing the cleanup now “because we have more details about the potential location and movement of contamination, steps being taken to control the plume and remediation plans including short-term storage of contaminated water.”
There is no pathway for the tritium to enter drinking water, Metling said. The facility has groundwater monitoring wells in concentric circles, and plant employees can track the progression of contaminants by looking at the wells that detect higher amounts. Inspectors from the Nuclear Regulatory Authority are on site as well, monitoring the response.
The company said the leak came from a pipe between two buildings.
Xcel said it has recovered about 25% of the tritium spilled to date, that recovery efforts will continue and that it will install a permanent solution this spring.
Xcel is considering building above ground storage tanks for the contaminated water it recovers and is considering options for treatment, reuse or eventual disposal of the tritium and collected water. The state pollution control agency said state regulators will review the options the company chooses.
The regulatory commission said that tritium spills do occur from time to time at nuclear plants, but they were either limited to plant characteristics or involved low off-site levels that would not affect public health. Xcel Energy reported a small tritium leak at Monticello in 2009.
The Monticello plant is located about 35 miles (55 kilometers) northwest of Minneapolis, up from the city on the Mississippi River.
Shelby Burma, who lives minutes from the spill site, said the news — weeks after a train derailed on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border left concerns about air, soil, and groundwater pollution — makes her worry about the increased amount of chemicals in the area. the environment.
“I think it’s concerning that they didn’t notify the public immediately,” Burma said. “They said it wouldn’t do any harm, but it’s hard to believe when they’ve waited how long to announce it.”
Phyllis reported from New York City, Peraben from Pierre, South Dakota. Associated Press writers Trisha Ahmed and Steve Karnofsky in Minneapolis and Margaret Stafford in Kansas City, Missouri, contributed to this report.
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