New York Times  [Printer-friendly version]
March 17, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Aided by massive federal subsidies, the
nuclear power industry is hoping to be born again. However the
public's acceptance of new reactors depends in part on the
performance of the old ones, and lately several of those have been
discovered to be leaking radioactive water into the ground. To make
things worse, the power companies have been fudging a few of the

By Matthew L. Wald

WASHINGTON, March 16 -- With power cleaner than coal and cheaper than
natural gas, the nuclear industry, 20 years past its last meltdown,
thinks it is ready for its second act: its first new reactor orders
since the 1970's.

But there is a catch. The public's acceptance of new reactors depends
in part on the performance of the old ones, and lately several of
those have been discovered to be leaking radioactive water into the

Near Braceville, Ill., the Braidwood Generating Station, owned by the
Exelon Corporation, has leaked tritium into underground water that has
shown up in the well of a family nearby. The company, which has bought
out one property owner and is negotiating with others, has offered to
help pay for a municipal water system for houses near the plant that
have private wells.

In a survey of all 10 of its nuclear plants, Exelon found tritium in
the ground at two others. On Tuesday, it said it had had another spill
at Braidwood, about 60 miles southwest of Chicago, and on Thursday,
the attorney general of Illinois announced she was filing a lawsuit
against the company over that leak and five earlier ones, dating to
1996. The suit demands among other things that the utility provide
substitute water supplies to residents.

In New York, at the Indian Point 2 reactor in Buchanan, workers
digging a foundation adjacent to the plant's spent fuel pool found wet
dirt, an indication that the pool was leaking. New monitoring wells
are tracing the tritium's progress toward the Hudson River.

Indian Point officials say the quantities are tiny, compared with the
amount of tritium that Indian Point is legally allowed to release into
the river. Officials said they planned to find out how much was
leaking and declare the leak a "monitored release pathway."

Nils J. Diaz, the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said
he would withhold judgment on the proposal until after it reached his
agency, but he added, "They're going to have to fix it."

This month, workers at the Palo Verde plant in New Mexico found
tritium in an underground pipe vault.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, which is critical of nuclear power
safety arrangements, said recently that in the past 10 years, tritium
had leaked from at least seven reactors. It called for a systematic
program to ensure there were no more leaks.

Tami Branum, who lives close to the Braidwood reactor and owns
property in the nearby village of Godley, said in a telephone
interview, "It's just absolutely horrible, what we're trying to deal
with here." Ms. Branum and her children, 17-year-old twin girls and a
7-year-old boy, drink only bottled water, she said, but use municipal
water for everything else. "We're bathing in it, there's no way around
it," she said.

Ms. Branum said that her property in Godley was worth about $50,000
and that she wanted to sell it, but that no property was changing
hands now because of the spill.

A spokesman for Exelon, Craig Nesbit, said that neither Godley's water
nor Braidwood's water system was threatened, but that the company had
lost credibility when it did not publicly disclose a huge fuel oil
spill and spills of tritium from 1996 to 2003. No well outside company
property shows levels that exceed drinking water standards, he said.

Mr. Diaz of the regulatory agency, speaking to a gathering of about
1,800 industry executives and government regulators last week, said
utilities were planning to apply for 11 reactor projects, with a total
of 17 reactors. The Palo Verde reactor was the last one that was
ordered, in October 1973, and actually built.

As the agency prepares to review license applications for the first
time in decades, it is focusing on "materials degradation," a catch-
all term for cracks, rust and other ills to which nuclear plants are
susceptible. The old metal has to hold together, or be patched or
replaced as required, for the industry to have a chance at building
new plants, experts say.

Tritium, a form of hydrogen with two additional neutrons in its
nucleus, is especially vexing. The atom is unstable and returns to
stability by emitting a radioactive particle. Because the hydrogen is
incorporated into a water molecule, it is almost impossible to filter
out. The biological effect of the radiation is limited because, just
like ordinary water, water that incorporates tritium does not stay in
the body long.

But it is detectable in tiny quantities, and always makes its source
look bad. The Energy Department closed a research reactor in New York
at its Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, largely because
of a tritium leak.

And it can catch up to a plant after death; demolition crews at the
Connecticut Yankee reactor in Haddam Neck, Conn., are disposing of
extra dirt that has been contaminated with tritium and other
materials, as they tear the plant down.

After years of flat employment levels, the industry is preparing to
hire hundreds of new engineers. Luis A. Reyes, the executive director
for operations at the regulatory commission, told the industry
gathering last week, "We'll take your resume in hard copy, online,
whatever you can do," eliciting laughter from an audience heavy with
executives of reactor operators and companies that want to build new