The San Onofre nuclear station is included in a list of commercial nuclear plants that have leaked radioactive tritium, a known cancer causing chemical.
The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) compiled the list. About one quarter of the nation’s operating nukes, 27 out of 104, have leaked tritium.
Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen, created as a byproduct of nuclear fission. It combines easily with water, and can persist inside us for years if it enters our bodies.
Recently a massive tritium leak at the Vermont Yankee nuke in New England has been in the news. The leak there has created a tritium contaminated lake in groundwater underneath the plant the size of a football field, and is moving towards the adjacent Connecticut River.
Public outrage grew earlier this year as radiation levels in the contaminated water went sky high, and also because plant officials lied about them.
At the end of February the Vermont Senate voted 26-4 to shut the plant down when its current operating license expires in 2012. The plant’s owner, Entergy, has been trying to get a 20 year license extension renewal from the NRC for the 38 year old Vermont Yankee nuke.
Vermont is the only state where a nuclear plant license renewal must have legislative approval.
But there is precedent for local government shutting down a nuke plant. In 1989 voters in the Sacramento Municipal Utility District voted to close down the Rancho Seco nuclear plant
San Onofre’s Tritium Leak
In August 2006, during the demolition of Unit 1 at the San Onofre plant, “Radiation levels 16 times that allowed in drinking water were discovered…beneath the plant,” according to the August 17, 2006 Orange County Register.
The LA Times reported on August 18, 2006 “Tritium leaked into groundwater at San Onofre, prompting closure of one well in southern Orange County.”
And the San Diego Union Tribune of August 16, 2006 reported San Onofre “leaked several thousand gallons over an unknown period of time.”
The U-T also reported, “The leak may have started decades ago, said Ray Golden, a spokesman for the nuclear facility.”
San Onofre Unit 1 is gone, but its spent fuel pool is still on its site, and is still full of lethal high level radioactive waste. These pools have a history of leaks too.
The federal limit for tritium in drinking water is 20,000 picocuries pc/l) per liter. A picocurie is a trillionth of a curie. A curie is a measure of radioactivity in something or someone.
However, California’s limit is 400 pc/l
The tritium found in San Onofre groundwater in 2006 in two samples measured 50,000 and 330,000 pc/l.
Recent sample of tritium contaminated groundwater below the Vermont Yankee measured in the millions of pc/l.
Almost all the 27 nuke plant leakers on the NRC’s list spewed their tritium in the 21st century. This is because they began operating in the 60s and 70s, and are now old and brittle. Yet the NRC has been handing out 20 year license renewals to all of them.
San Onofre has yet to apply for 20 year license renewals for Units 2 and 3.
Paul Blanch, a prominent nuclear engineer turned whistleblower, told the February 23 Brattleboro (VT) Reformer,
“The root cause is the NRC. They’re in bed with the industry. The NRC is supposed to be the parent, but it’s not enforcing regulations. And the utilities are abusing their parents and society.
“Tritium is a symptom of degraded pipes. It could also signal degradation of concrete trenches and tunnels and the bottom of storage tanks. It’s the first indication that anything and everything can be breaking at the plant.”
Aging nuclear plants, Blanch went on,
“are not capable of 40 years of operation. Certainly not capable of 60 years. They have a limited lifetime. It’s not practical to continue operating these things at a risk to the public.”
So while the Obama administration is championing the construction of new nukes, the folly of nuclear power in aging first generation nuclear power plants continues to be the story of things falling apart.