New York Times
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 facts.]

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 ground.

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 ones.