The leak at the nuclear power plant did not require public notice
Minnesota regulators knew four months ago that radioactive waste had leaked from a nuclear power plant in Monticello — but they didn’t announce the leak as of this week.
The delay in notifying the public of the leak in November raised questions about public safety and transparency, but industry experts said Friday there had never been a public health threat. They said Xcel Energy voluntarily notified state authorities and reported the tritium leak to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission soon after it was confirmed, and that the 400,000 gallon (1.5 million liters) leak of radioactive water never reached a threshold that would have required public notification.
“That’s something we’re struggling with because there’s such concern about anything that’s nuclear,” said Victoria Mitlyng, a spokeswoman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “The concern is very, very understandable. So I want to make it extra clear that the Minnesota public, the people, the community near the facility were not and are not in danger.”
State officials said that while they were aware of the November leak, they were waiting for more information before making a public announcement.
“We knew tritium was present in a monitoring well, but Xcel had not yet identified the source of the leak and its location,” Minnesota Pollution Control Agency spokesman Michael Rafferty said Thursday. “Now that we have all the information on where the leak occurred, how much was released into the groundwater, and that contaminated groundwater has migrated beyond the original location, we are sharing that information.”
Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that occurs naturally in the environment and is a common by-product of nuclear power plant operations. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it emits a weak form of beta radiation that doesn’t travel very far and cannot penetrate human skin.
Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said a significant health risk would only arise if people consumed fairly large amounts of tritium. That risk is mitigated if the cloud remains on the company’s premises, which Xcel Energy and Minnesota officials say it does.
If regulators are sure it hasn’t moved off-site, people shouldn’t have to worry about their safety, he said, adding that companies usually take action when on-site monitoring wells detect elevated levels of contaminants like tritium .
Mitlyng said there is no official obligation 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 notice of the leak on its website on November 23, noting that the plant had reported it to the state a day earlier. The report classified the leak as a non-emergency. The notice said the source of the tritium was being investigated at the time.
Additionally, there was no widespread notification to the public prior to Thursday.
Rafferty said disclosure requirements are the property of the facility and state authorities would have notified residents immediately if there had been an imminent threat to health or the environment.
Rafferty said Minnesota’s Pollution Control Agency decided to share information now about its role in overseeing the remediation “because we need more details about the location and possible movement of the contamination, steps to control the cloud, and remediation plans including near-term ones.” Have storage of contaminated water.”
Mitlyng said there is no way for the tritium to get into drinking water. The facility has groundwater monitoring wells in concentric circles, and facility staff can track the progress of pollutants by looking at which wells are detecting larger amounts. There are also inspectors from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on site monitoring the response.
The leak came from a pipe between two buildings, the company said.
Xcel said it has recovered about 25% of the spilled tritium so far, that recovery efforts are continuing, and that it will install a permanent solution this spring.
Xcel is considering constructing above-ground storage tanks for the recovered contaminated water and considering options for treatment, reuse or final disposal of the collected tritium and water. State regulators will review options the company selects, the state environmental agency said.
The regulatory commission said tritium spills do occur at nuclear power plants from time to time, but they were either confined to plant property or involved offsite concentrations so low that they had no public health impact. Xcel Energy reported a small tritium leak at Monticello in 2009.
The Monticello facility is located approximately 35 miles (55 kilometers) northwest of Minneapolis, upstream of the city on the Mississippi River.
Shelby Burma, who lives minutes from the site of the spill, said the news — which lingered weeks after a train derailment on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border and left lingering concerns about contaminated air, soil and groundwater — worried her about a growing amount of chemicals in the environment.
“I find it quite alarming that they did not inform the public immediately,” Burma said. “They said it wouldn’t do any harm, but that’s hard to believe when they waited how long they were going to go public with it.”
Phillis reported from New York City, Biraben from Pierre, South Dakota. Associated Press writers Trisha Ahmed and Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis and Margaret Stafford in Kansas City, Missouri contributed to this report.
Michael Phillis and Amancai Biraben, The Associated Press