Tritium Levels Spike In Groundwater Tests At Indian Point

Feb 11, 2016

Additional testing has turned up higher levels of radioactive tritium in groundwater than what was reported last week at the Indian Point nuclear power plant. Plant officials say this is to be expected and stress there is no risk to public health and safety.

Indian Point parent Entergy Wednesday released updated findings from groundwater tests at the Buchanan-based plant that confirm anticipated fluctuations in tritium levels. Tritium is a radioactively weak isotope of hydrogen. One reading showed an 80 percent increase in tritium levels over the 65,000 percent increase initially reported for one of the three wells with elevated tritium levels. Jerry Nappi is spokesman for Entergy.

“Even with the higher readings, this tritium in the ground at Indian Point did not and cannot impact drinking water or human health or, for that matter, aquatic life in the river,” says Nappi.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Spokesman Neil Sheehan says such spikes are expected and generally last about a month before decreasing.

“There are the three wells in close proximity to the Unit 2 spent fuel pool building that picked up on this spike in tritium levels,” says Sheehan. “So given the migration of that water, we would expect those to continue to go up for a period of time before they begin to drop again.”

This comes after news became public last weekend that tritium-contaminated water leaked into the groundwater at Indian Point. This was based on results from samples from Entergy’s groundwater monitoring program taken January 26 that identified elevated levels of tritium in three monitoring wells out of several dozen. Nappi says testing will now occur twice a week instead of quarterly. The NRC has sent a specialist inspector to Indian Point to augment the three full-time inspectors based at the plant. Again, Sheehan.

“Our specialist inspector will be there all day today and longer, if necessary, with support from the three onsite resident inspectors and, again, will be tasked with trying to better understand exactly what happened and starting to put together, piece together the picture of not only what occurred by what the company’s doing in response,” Sheehan says.

A sump pump failed and Sheehan says the inspector is trying to learn why. Again, Nappi.

“So there was work being done in preparation for a refueling outage. There’s plant refueling outages once every two years so it’s a pretty big process, and getting ready for that process involved filtering some water. During that filtration process some of that water made its way to the ground, and that’s what we’re seeing in the groundwater right now,” Nappi says. “But, again, there’s no real consequence to human health. That’s been verified. And we just have to figure out exactly where in that process water escaped so we can prevent that from happening in the future.”

Meanwhile, Governor Andrew Cuomo has involved a third state agency in investigating the cause of the leak at the Westchester County plant. After directing the Departments of Environmental Conservation and Health February 6 to investigate the cause of the leak, Cuomo expanded his directive after learning of the second reading of higher tritium levels in groundwater. On February 10, Cuomo included the Department of Public Service, which he says has been investigating operational problems at the plant since December. He now wants all three agencies to integrate their investigations to explore whether operational problems that he says are suspected to have caused the uptick in unexpected outages of the plant may also be causing the leak of radioactive water. Nappi says Entergy is committed to transparency, which is why it released the second set of findings.

“The issue is now highly visible due to the governor’s press release from this past weekend,” Nappi says. “But we’re going to continue to communicate with our key stakeholders and elected officials and the regulators on this issue.”

Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel points out he was the first elected official to call for closing Indian Point, a call that came after 9/11 and one he reiterates today.

“It’s one thing after another after another. There have been leaks, there have been…  The bottom line is it’s an old, aging plant and it should be shut and if a new plant needs to be built, then a new plant needs to be built further upstate in a less densely populated area,” Engel says. “And that would make sense.”

Engel, a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, represents portions of Westchester and the Bronx.

“I am not comfortable with the attempts by Entergy or anybody to try to fix this,” says Engel. “What do you say, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, and I think that’s the case here.”