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Renewing The Nuclear Past (Part 3)

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Indian Point Nuclear Station, as seen from the opposite side of the Hudson River. A spent fuel and other systems have leaked tritium and other radionuclides into the groundwater below.
Shawn Allee
Indian Point Nuclear Station, as seen from the opposite side of the Hudson River. A spent fuel and other systems have leaked tritium and other radionuclides into the groundwater below.

From The Environment Report

Producer: Shawn Allee

You might think a nuclear power station would have the tightest pipes imaginable to keep radioactive liquids from contaminating water underground. But the truth is, dozens of reactors have spouted leaks, and sometimes it took years to find them. Shawn Allee found one leak is raising questions about how nuclear power plants are regulated:

I meet anti-nuclear activist Susan Shapiro in some hills northwest of New York City. We drive where we can see the Indian Point nuclear power station across the Hudson River. Shapiro tells me it’s leaked radioactive water into the ground.

Shapiro: It's not contained and they know that. In fact, their answer was to let it leak into the groundwater. For years it might have been leaking. We know it’s been leaking for the last five, because that’s when we found it.

And for Shapiro, things get worse. We stop along the river.

Allee: What's the significance of this place?

Shapiro: This is where they're planning to put the 'desal' plant.

Allee: What kind of plant?

Shapiro: Desalination plant for...they want to take the Hudson River water which is a briny water and desalinate it and give it to Rockland County people as their drinking water.

The water plant and the nuclear power plant have been filing important paperwork about how they’d use the river they share.

Shapiro: Neither one refers to the other. The desal plant doesn’t mention Indian Point, and Indian Point doesn’t mention the desal plant. And we’re looking at it...how can they not mention it?

I asked both the water company, United Water, and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission about this. The water plant’s application was made after the Indian Point leaks were well-known. But a spokesman says water tests show the Hudson’s water, before and after treatment, will be far below federal limits for pollutants, including radioactive ones from Indian Point.

Things are complicated on the Indian Point side, though. To start, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission wants to make clear, people shouldn’t worry. Here’s NRC spokesman Scott Burnell.

Burnell: By virtue of the vast quantities of water traveling through the Hudson, any isotopes that would make it to the river would automatically be diluted to several orders of magnitude, meaning they would be incapable of posing any public health risk.

The NRC is reviewing Indian Point’s operations, because the plant wants to run an additional 20 years beyond its current license. The plant filed an environmental report to get permission. But that filing does not mention the desalination plant, even though these filings are supposed to mention drinking water facilities. The deputy head of the NRC’s re-licensing division says the agency’s "looking into that right now" – almost three years after the water company made its intentions clear.

Indian Point is just one nuclear plant that’s leaked radioactive water. At least 27 reactors have leaked. The NRC says "at least" 27 because the agency learns about leaks from companies that own nuclear power plants. In some cases they’re not found and reported for years. Burnell says these kinds of leaks pose little health threat, so his agency doesn’t demand inch-by-inch inspections of every pipe and drain.

Burnell: The issue there returns to the limits of the NRC's authority. We have the authority to ensure the plant is capable of shutting down safely. We do expect that the systems will remain whole and not leak. We do not, however, have the authority to enforce a standard that goes beyond what's necessary to safely shut down the plant.

To recap...the federal government wants to stop leaks, but it won’t step in unless there’s potential for a massive accident, health threat or exorbitant clean up costs when a plant closes.

As for the nuclear power industry? It says plant owners are trying to meet higher standards, but they’re self-imposed standards, and it doesn’t think regulators should change that. Here’s Ralph Andersen, with The Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade group.

Andersen: We've given it that enhanced priority, but to then say that the regulators should take that on, that's a whole different reach, in my mind.

So, the NRC says it’s not going to change its rules on leaks because it feels those rules are effective now.

For The Environment Report, I’m Shawn Allee.

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