Nominees to US NRC confident of quick confirmation, but plagued by tritium leaks at US nuke plants

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But leaks of tritium – a radioactive isotope of the element hydrogen – at several US nuclear power plants in recent years have caused some members of the US public, environmental observers and some members of the Senate to loose faith in the industry, despite assurances that the leaks cause no danger to the general public. The leaks have most prominently affected plants in Vermont and Connecticut in the US northeast

This lack of faith, however – as shown by the enthusiasm of the confirmation hearings – is unlikely to dampen Washington’s new itch for nuclear power as one of its main weapons in the fight on climate change. For much of Obama’s first year in office, little mention was made of including nuclear power in his green stimulus plan to address climate change. But in the past several days, the Administration and its allies’ backing of nuclear power has been gaining a central stragegy in US climate policy.

The new surge in nuclear is coming as part of US efforts to reduce its emissions of climate gasses, and new nuclear power plants were proposed by President Barack Obama in his recent State of the Union Address last month to the round applause of Republican lawmakers.

Nuclear – which is touted as a zero carbon emitting energy source by the industry – has been condemned by national and international environmental organisations , who rightly point out that more plants mean more spent nuclear fuel that has no place to be stored long term.

Environmentalists, including Bellona, are also perturbed by the billions of dollars that will apparently be put into US Government loan guarantees for new nuclear plants included in the White House’s budget proposal, and ecological groups say the cash is best spent on renewable energy sources that are already on the starting blocks.

Nuclear power plants, by comparison, noted the Union of Concerned Scientists earlier this week, are constantly beset with cost overruns and failures to meet deadlines. This means any carbon reduction benefit of new plants would be lost before the plants could even go online.

The new nuclear push, which has amassed a particularly large head of steam this week, represents the first time in more than 30 years – since the near meltdown at Three Mile Island –  that the US NRC is entertaining licensing new nuclear power plants. It is also confirmation, said one White House official, the nuclear will “constitute a large portion of the emissions reduction technologies that President Obama has promised the world.”

Nuclear no longer partisan

Bi-partisan pro-nuclear Senators on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee were anxious to move the confirmation process along, while at the same time issuing warning over safety.

NRC nominees George Apostolakis, William Magwood and William Ostendorff were not drawn into detailed discussions of how they might handle conflicting pressures for a nuclear “renaissance” of new plants and the challenges of extending the lives of the current aging reactor fleet.

Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe, ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, urged the nominees to “concentrate on getting things done rapidly.”
Senator Benjamin Cardin, a Maryland Democrat and a nuclear power supporter, stressed the safety side of the equation. “We depend on the independent oversight authority you have,” he told them.

The nominees all promised to exercise that authority.

Erosion of public trust

Yet all three nominees told the committee that Tritium leaks like the one that threatens the future of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant are undermining confidence in other reactors around the country.

Magwood said the leaks by themselves are not a harm to the public. Rather, he told the committee in remarks televised on C-Span that, “The point is not that it’s not hurting anyone – The point is it’s showing you don’t have your act together.”

The point is not that it’s not hurting anyone,” he said. “The point is it’s showing you don’t have your act together.”

Magwood, a former director of the Energy Department’s office of nuclear energy, spoke in much the same language that foes of reactors have been using for weeks to describe the leaks at Vermont Yankee, on the Connecticut River near the Massachusetts border, and other nuclear plants.

Magwood, drew a parallel in his testimony to a research reactor that his department operated at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, in Upton on Long Island, that leaked tritium into the groundwater in the 1980s and ’90s.

“All the analysis by all the scientists said the tritium leak posed no threat to human health, to anything offsite,” he said. “That wasn’t the point. The point was that the public lost confidence in the ability to operate the facility, and as a result, the facility was shut down.” The reactor was initially shut down in 1996 after the leak was discovered and was closed permanently in 1999.

More generally, Magwood, as former chief safety regulator for DOE’s large nuclear research and power systems infrastructure told the committee that, “”No matter the cost of impact on programmes, I would and did order ‘stand-downs’ at DOE sites when I was not satisfied with levels of safety,” adding that such decisions were costly and controversial, “but I felt then and I feel today that nothing is more important than taking clear and responsible action in the face of any question of worker and public safety.”

Magwood’s nomination has drawn some fire in the Senate and the NGO sector. Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project On Government Oversight said in a statement to Bellona Web that, ”We do not believe Mr. Magwood has the independence from the nuclear power industry, nor the security oversight background, to regulate it.”  

But Committee Chairwoman, California Democrat Barbara Boxer, did not share that sentiment and said: “My intention is to move your appointments very quickly,” she said to the three nominees, who would fill current vacancies in the five-member NRC if confirmed by the Senate.

Balancing new reactors versus extending use of old

Nominee Ostendorff, said that one of the biggest problems facing the NRC would be to balance oversight of the licensing of new reactors and of the safe operation of older, existing plants with “piping concerns” like the leaks. Opponents of nuclear power say tritium leaks show the industry is not to be trusted.

The tritium leak debacle

Tritium is incorporated into the water molecule and impossible to filter out, raising fears even if it has no health impact.

The leaks have set off a political furor. After a leak at an Illinois plant in 2006, the Legislature there passed a law requiring prompt reporting.

The nuclear industry acknowledges it has a problem.

“When people hear terms like leak, tritium, and groundwater, and when you put those words together in a single sentence, the normal person is going to get uneasy,” said Ralph Andersen, senior director for radiation safety and environmental protection at the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s main lobby.

In Vermont  a particularly adamant cadre of environmentalists who oppose nuclear reactors has gained substantial momentum in the last few weeks because of the discovery of leaking tritium. The Legislature may block a 20-year extension of the Vermont Yankee plant’s operating license, which expires in 2012.

“They’ve completely lost the trust of Vermonters,” said James Moore, an energy expert at the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.

Vermont’s governor, James Douglas, long a supporter of continued operation of the plant, recently acknowledged that the politics of the issue had changed and suggested the Legislature delay any decisions about Vermont Yankee.

Tritium leaks at one third of US plants

The leaks came to light only because of a nationwide effort that the nuclear industry began in May 2006 to grapple with the issue after the discovery of leaks at two sites in Illinois and one in New York.

Now industry officials say that perhaps a third of the reactors nationwide have had such leaks. Twelve sites have filed official reports since 2003, and more may be discovered soon. A spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Scott Burnell, said that nearly all of them are vulnerable.

“You’ve got storage tanks and you’ve got pipes that crisscross under the site,” Burnell said of the reactors. “The possibility is there at every site.”

Around the country, in all but one case the releases that produced elevated concentrations of tritium were entirely on the plant site and were not in drinking water, according to the industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The exception was Braidwood, about 120 kilometers southwest of Chicago, the plant that prompted the Illinois Legislature to act. The Environmental Protection Agency sets a standard for how much tritium is allowed in drinking water. But at Vermont Yankee and other places, the tritium has not been found in drinking water but in groundwater.

Charles Digges