There is a political and public relations cauldron boiling in Vermont over a recently discovered tritium leak at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. Tritium is a mildly radioactive isotope of hydrogen and has a 10 day biological half-life when it is ingested by humans.
The leak is minute and completely inconsequential from a safety standpoint: the tritium levels very low. Only one ground water sample is slightly above federal drinking water standards (even though the sample points are far away from any sources of drinking water). In fact, the levels are so low that even if you drank water from the test wells, and nothing else, for an ENTIRE YEAR your radiation exposure would be only about 1/10 of what you would receive from one medical x-ray, and a small fraction of your exposure from the natural background radiation. Eating the same quantity of brazil nuts every day, one of the most naturally radioactive foods, would result in MORE exposure to radiation than bathing in the water in these test wells!
These facts have not stopped the antinuclear groups in the area from going berserk. They know when they have the upper hand on a public relations issue, and they are doing everything they can to take advantage of it. Adding fuel to the fire are allegations of false statements by plant officials. At a PSB hearing last spring a plant executive stated he did not believe there was any active buried piping containing radioactive fluids. The official said the plant would verify that was the case and would get back to the board, but reportedly they did not. Potentially adding to the communication difficulties – the phrases “Buried piping” and “underground piping” do NOT mean the same thing. To an engineer the term “buried” piping refers to piping that is buried underground in direct contact with the soil. Underground piping means the piping is below grade and could be located in a vault or concrete trench.
Plant personnel have apologized for the miscommunication and are actively looking for the source of the leak. Timing could not be worse because the VT public service commission has yet to make a ruling on Entergy’s proposal to create a new nuclear only generating company, and the VT state legislature has yet to vote on the plant’s request for a license extension.
Vermont Yankee has passed every NRC inspection in flying colors and is operated both safely and reliably. In fact, the plant recently earned the highest possible rating from the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations.