The Right Kind of Nuclear Leak

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For the residents of Chicago and its outlying areas, the recent news that three of energy powerhouse Exelon's nuclear plants in Illinois have, on several occasions, leaked the radioactive material tritium has been scary enough. Then there was this past weekend's false alarm at another of Exelon's plants, which, while not related, set off the nation's first "site-area emergency" at a U.S. nuclear facility in 15 years. The fact that upon further review, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) announced that the incidents were much ado about nothing with "no release of radioactivity... no danger to the public" did little to assuage many people's worst fears.

And perhaps they shouldn't have. At a time when the Bush Administration is pushing nuclear power as a partial solution to the nation's current energy woes, the fact that the accidents happened as far back as 1996 but were only recently disclosed highlighted what critics view as glaring weaknesses in the federal government's oversight of nuclear energy. So it was that earlier this week, just hours after the emergency at the LaSalle County nuclear plant and loud complaints from Republican Congressman Jerry Weller of Illinois, the NRC decided to launch a wide probe of all nuclear power operations in Illinois, which has the highest number of plants (6) and reactors (11) of any state in the U.S. As it happens, they are all owned by Exelon, a Chicago-based giant with some 5 million customers and $15 billion in annual revenues.

Weller, whose district covers three of Exelon's plants, and other critics first sounded the alarm following three leaks in the past month, including one from aged pipe that was due to be replaced in June. But more worrisome, they said, was the fact that the company and federal officials only recently disclosed publicly that, in fact, there had been eight leaks and spills going back 10 years. Most occurred in pipes that are supposed to safely dispose of waste but on some occasions leaked tritium into the ground water. One spill, in 1998 at the company's Braidwood generating plant, dumped some 3 million gallons of water that was still in the ground eight years later, albeit in small doses.

The public knew nothing of it. In fact, it appears the company didn't know the full extent until a year ago when a worried state worker alerted them to the fact that tritium may be in the water near one of the plants. That set off a round of testing that late last year showed plant officials had severely blundered in both reporting the incident and cleaning it up.

"These [leaks] are at levels of radioactivity that you may be exposed to by simply walking the face of the earth," said Exelon spokesman Craig Nesbit, who added that the company welcomes any federal or state inspections. "But the 1998 spill was, clearly, improperly handled and it was a large wakeup call and kicked us into gear. Our sensitivity to the environmental effects of what we do and our sensitivity to the public's need to know, and right away, has evolved tremendously over the last couple of months."

But the delays in disclosure, according to David Lochbaum, a nuclear expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, "raises serious red flags. That's not the way it's supposed to work. The leaks should be stopped immediately and the public should be alerted. But the companies, and I'd say the federal government, have been so distracted with putting up new reactors and new opportunities. The Bush Administration wants an expanded role for nuclear power without first properly expanding the capacity for the nuclear regulators."

Lockbaum acknowledges that the NRC, for its part, has been hit with budget cuts, more nuclear demands and more worries since Sept. 11, and is only now getting the necessary funds to add about 300 positions — a roughly 10 percent increase. He's not the only one concerned. At a Senate committee hearing last May, an official with the Government Accountability Office expressed misgivings about the industry's level of self-policing, saying that the NRC "in effect, relies on [plant operators] and trusts them to a large extent to make sure that their plants are operated safely." Residents of the Midwest might argue that companies like Exelon no longer deserve that trust.