U.S. nuclear power plant operators haven’t figured out how to quickly detect
leaks of radioactive water from aging pipes that snake underneath the sites
— and the leaks, often undetected for years, are not going to stop,
according to a new report by congressional investigators.
The report by the Government Accountability Office was released by two
congressmen Tuesday in response to an Associated Press investigation that
shows three-quarters of America’s 65 nuclear plant sites have leaked
radioactive tritium, sometimes into groundwater.
Separately, two senators asked the GAO, the auditing and watchdog arm of
Congress, to investigate the findings of the ongoing AP series Aging Nukes,
which concludes that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the nuclear
power industry have worked closely to keep old reactors operating within
safety standards by weakening them, or not enforcing the rules.
A third senator, independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont, said the AP series
has raised disturbing allegations about safety at aging plants and
reiterated his demand that the Vermont Yankee plant be shut.
In the report released Tuesday by Democratic Reps. Edward J. Markey of
Massachusetts and Peter Welch of Vermont, the GAO concluded that while a
voluntary initiative that industry recently adopted is supposed to identify
leaks, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission doesn’t know how fast problems
“Absent such an assessment, we continue to believe that NRC has no assurance
that the Groundwater Protection Initiative will lead to prompt detection of
underground piping system leaks as nuclear power plants age,” the report’s
No leak is known to have reached aquifers that hold the drinking water
supplies of public utilities, though tritium, a radioactive form of
hydrogen, has contaminated residential drinking wells near at least three
nuclear power plants. The tritium in those wells did not surpass the federal
health standard. Though mildly radioactive, tritium poses the greatest risk
of causing cancer when it ends up in drinking water.
Markey’s spokeswoman said his office received the GAO report in early June
after requesting it in 2009 following reports of a tritium leak at the
Indian Point nuclear plant north of New York City. Typically congressional
offices hold reports for 30 days, but Markey released it in response AP’s
tritium story, part of an ongoing investigative series.
In a written statement, he compared the ongoing nuclear crisis at Japan’s
Fukushima Dai-ichi plant to the kind of meltdown he said could happen in the
U.S. if a pipe that is supposed to carry water to cool a reactor’s core
“There would be no warning because no one ever checks the integrity of these
underground pipes,” Markey said.
The industry’s Nuclear Energy Institute cited its “underground piping
integrity initiative policy,” launched voluntarily in 2009, as proof that it
takes tritium leaks seriously.
“The initiative commits the industry to a series of actions to establish
more frequent inspection and enhance dependability of underground piping
with a goal of protecting structural integrity and preventing leaks,” the
institute said in a statement.
The institute also criticized AP’s overall findings and “selective,
misleading reporting in a series of new articles on U.S. nuclear power plant
Previously, the AP reported that regulators and industry have weakened
safety standards for decades to keep the nation’s commercial nuclear
reactors operating. While NRC officials and plant operators argue that
safety margins can be eased without compromising safety, critics say these
accommodations are inching the reactors closer to an accident.
In response to those findings, New Jersey’s two Democratic senators asked
the GAO for a new investigation based on “the serious allegations”
documented by the AP.
In a Senate speech Tuesday, Sanders said the NRC and Vermont Yankee operator
Entergy have ignored the will of Vermonters. The Vermont state Senate
recently voted to close the plant once its license expires next year.
He also called for a GAO investigation into the safety issues raised in the
AP series. “These allegations by the AP are incredibly disturbing,” Sanders
said. “Safety at our nuclear plants should be the top priority at the NRC,
particularly after what we saw happen in Japan. They should not answer to
the nuclear industry, the NRC must answer to the public.”
Sanders said the investigation should determine whether the NRC is
systematically working with industry to undermine safety standards to keep
aging plants operating.
California Democrat Barbara Boxer, chairwoman of the Senate’s Environment
and Public Works Committee, said she is supporting Sanders.
Late Tuesday, the NRC said it disagreed with AP’s conclusions in the
stories, but welcomed the attention to nuclear plant safety the stories have
generated. The agency defended its standards and approach to safety.
“The NRC never wavers from its primary mission — ensuring that the public
remains safe during the civilian use of radioactive materials in the United
States,” the statement said.
Addressing the main issue of the AP series regarding weakening of standards,
the NRC said it “only endorses changes when they maintain acceptable levels
of public safety; this can include adding or strengthening requirements.”
The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at investigate(at)ap.org