The delay in notifying the public of the November leak has raised questions about public safety and transparency, but industry experts said Friday there was never a threat to public health. They said Xcel Energy voluntarily notified state agencies and reported the tritium leak to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission shortly after it was confirmed and that the leak of 400,000 gallons (1.5 million liters) of radioactive water never reached a threshold that would have required public notification.
“It’s something we struggle with because anything nuclear is such a concern,” said Victoria Mitlyng, spokeswoman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “The concern is very, very understandable. That’s why I want to further clarify the fact that the public in Minnesota, the people, the community near the plant, were not and are not in danger.
State officials said while they were aware of the leak in November, they waited for more information before making a public announcement.
“We knew there was a presence of tritium in a monitoring well, but Xcel had not yet identified the source of the leak and its location,” a spokesman for the Control Agency said Thursday. Minnesota Pollution, Michael Rafferty. “Now that we have all the information on where the leak happened, how much was released into the groundwater and whether the contaminated groundwater moved past the location origin, we share this information.”
Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen found naturally in the environment and a common by-product of nuclear power plant operations. It emits a weak form of beta radiation that doesn’t travel very far and can’t penetrate human skin, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear energy safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said a significant health risk would only occur if people consumed high enough amounts of tritium. This risk is contained if the plume remains on the company’s site, which Xcel Energy and Minnesota officials said it did.
If regulators are sure he hasn’t left the site, people shouldn’t have to worry about their safety, he said, adding that companies usually take action when On-site monitoring wells detect high levels of contaminants like tritium.
Mitlyng said there is no formal requirement for nuclear power plants to report all tritium leaks to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Instead, Xcel Energy previously agreed to report certain tritium leaks to the state. When Xcel Energy shares information with the state, it also shares it with the commission.
The commission posted a notification about the leak on its website Nov. 23, noting that the factory had reported it to the state a day earlier. The report classified the leak as non-urgent. The notice stated that the source of the tritium was under investigation at the time.
Beyond that, there was no widespread public notification until Thursday.
Rafferty said disclosure requirements are the responsibility of the facility, and state agencies would immediately notify residents if there was an imminent health and environmental threat.
Rafferty said the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has decided to share information about its role overseeing the cleanup now “because we have more details about the location and potential movement of contamination, measurements taken to control the plume and remediation plans, including short-term storage of contaminated water.
Mitlyng said there is no pathway for the tritium to enter drinking water. The facility has groundwater monitoring wells in concentric circles, and plant employees can track the progress of contaminants by watching which wells are detecting higher amounts. There are also Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspectors on site, monitoring the response.
The company said the leak came from a pipe between two buildings.
Xcel said it has recovered about 25% of the tritium spilled so far, that recovery efforts will continue and that it will install a permanent solution this spring.
Xcel is considering constructing above ground storage tanks for the contaminated water it collects and is considering options for the treatment, reuse or final disposal of collected tritium and water. State regulators will review the options the company chooses, the state Pollution Control Agency said.
The regulatory commission said tritium spills occur from time to time at nuclear power plants, but they were either limited to plant properties or involved offsite levels so low they had no impact. impact on public health. Xcel Energy reported a small tritium leak at Monticello in 2009.
The Monticello plant is about 55 miles northwest of Minneapolis, upriver from the city on the Mississippi River.
Shelby Burma, who lives minutes from the site of the spill, said the news – weeks after a train derailment at the Ohio-Pennsylvania border left lingering concerns about air, soil and contaminated groundwater – makes her worry about an increasing amount of chemicals in the environment.
“I think it’s quite alarming that they didn’t let the public know right away,” Burma said. “They said it wouldn’t cause any harm, but it’s hard to believe when they waited how long to release it.”
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