Reuters  [Printer-friendly version]
March 4, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Three nuclear power plants operated by Exelon
in Illinois have leaked radioactive tritium into groundwater and the
company has delayed reporting the problem. Are Exelon plants in other
states doing the same thing?]

By Andrew Stern

CHICAGO, March 4 (Reuters) - Years of radioactive waste water spills
from Illinois nuclear power plants have fueled suspicions the industry
covers up safety problems and sparked debate about the risks from
exposure to low-level radiation.

The recent, belated disclosures of leaks of the fission byproduct
tritium from Exelon Corp.'s  Braidwood, Dresden, and Byron
twin-reactor nuclear plants -- one as long ago as 1996 -- triggered
worries among neighbors about whether it was safe to drink their
water, or even stay.

"How'd you like to live next to that plant and every time you turn on
the tap to take a drink you have to think about whether it's safe?"
asked Joe Cosgrove, the head of parks in Godley, Illinois, a town
adjacent to Braidwood.

Cosgrove and some scientists and anti-nuclear activists who monitor
health issues related to nuclear power say the delay in reporting the
spills is indicative of industry and regulatory obfuscation bordering
on cover-up.

"We don't know what else has been leaked from that site. When they
close ranks, you can't believe them," Cosgrove said, referring to the
plant owner and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees
safety at the nation's 103 commercial reactors, including 11 in

Cosgrove recalled a 2002 spill of diesel fuel that was initially
mischaracterized by Braidwood's operators as run-off from a parking
lot. When information about the tritium spills arose as part of the
town's since-dropped lawsuit over the fuel, Exelon asked the court to
bar any questions about it.

A local doctor and his wife, Joseph and Cynthia Sauer, whose daughter
contracted brain cancer when they lived near the Dresden plant, have
collected data about heightened rates of cancer and birth defects near
the Illinois plants in the period after the spills began. They say
they were brushed off by the NRC.


"I don't say that people don't have concerns, but any suggestion that
we are in cahoots with the industry to suppress (information) is
baseless," NRC spokesman Jan Strasma said.

The industry and the NRC say existing medical research shows people
living near nuclear plants are safe and limits on discharges of
radioactive liquids and gases are adequate.

But some scientists and at least one congressman want a conclusive
investigation of the health risks. They say that while tritium is like
water, if ingested some of it may remain in the body where it can
damage cells, leading to cancers, birth defects and miscarriages.

U.S. Rep. Edward Markey has been unable to secure government funding
for a health study on people living near nuclear plants, and the
Massachusetts Democrat says he opposes U.S. President George W. Bush's
prescription to build a new generation of nuclear reactors to lessen
reliance on fossil fuels until more is known.

"The president's plan is misguided. It presents health risks, creates
additional nuclear waste that we have no long-term solution for,
creates additional terrorist targets that we do not adequately defend,
and costs an enormous amount of money. (Bush's) phrase 'clean, safe
nuclear power' is oxymoronic," he said.


Exelon and the NRC say a 1998 spill of 3 million gallons (11.3 million
litres) of tritium -- a form of hydrogen that becomes radioactive
water when it contacts air -- did contaminate ground water that
breached the Braidwood plant boundary. But the radioactivity had not
risen above federal limits where people live or have their drinking
water wells.

At Dresden, the 276,000-gallon (1 million-litre) tritium leak is still
on-site, and the spill at Byron was found inside concrete vaults along
an effluent pipe.

The plants are all within 100 miles (160 km) of Chicago in northern
Illinois, which has the largest nuclear capacity of any U.S. state,
about equal to Great Britain's.

The spilled tritium was destined to be discharged as effluent in
rivers anyway, authorities said, and they were not explicitly required
to notify the public about it -- a reporting loophole Illinois
congressmen want closed.

"It's not like people are going to start dropping like flies from this
level of radiation," said Arjun Makhijani of the Institute for Energy
and Environmental Research.

"What I am alarmed by is the number of years it has taken, and how lax
the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been, and how lax the
corporation has been in informing the community fully" about the
spills, he said.

Reuters 2006.