Radioactive Material Found in Groundwater Below NY Nuke Plant

BUCHANAN, N.Y. (AP) -
ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, JUNE 20, 2011 AND THEREAFTER - This July 2007 photo made available by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in response to a public records request by The Associated Press shows a badly rusted valve inside a vault at the closed Indian Point 1 nuclear plant in New York state. The pipe was part of a containment spraying system that was initially a focus of concern as workers tried to find the source of leaks at the site. The leakage was eventually traced to spent fuel pools. The reactor had been shut down since 1974. (AP Photo/Nuclear Regulatory Commission)
This July 2007 photo made available by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission shows a badly rusted valve inside a vault at the closed Indian Point 1 nuclear plant in New York state. (AP Photo/Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

An apparent overflow at a nuclear power plant north of New York City spilled highly radioactive water into an underground monitoring well, but nuclear regulators say that the public isn’t at risk.

Officials at the Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, 40 miles north of Manhattan, reported on Friday that water contaminated by tritium leaked into the groundwater under the facility. The contamination has remained contained to the site, said Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who ordered the state’s environmental conservation and health departments to investigate.

“Our first concern is for the health and safety of the residents close to the facility and ensuring the groundwater leak does not pose a threat,” Cuomo said Saturday in a statement.

The leak occurred after a drain overflowed during a maintenance exercise while workers were transferring water, which has high levels of radioactive contamination, said Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Normally, a sump pump would take the water and filter it into another treatment system, but apparently the pump was out of service, Sheehan said. After the drain overflowed, the water seeped out of the building into the groundwater.

It was unclear how much water spilled, but samples showed the water had a radioactivity level of more than 8 million picocuries per liter, a 65,000 percent increase from the average at the plant, Cuomo said. The levels are the highest regulators have seen at Indian Point, and the normal number is about 12,300 picocuries per liter, Cuomo said.

Contaminated groundwater is likely to slowly make its way to the Hudson River, Sheehan said, but research has shown that such water usually ends up in the middle of the river and is so diluted that the levels of radioactivity are nearly undetectable.

“We don’t believe there’s any concern for members of the public,” Sheehan said. “First of all, this water’s not going anywhere immediately … and, again, because of the dilution factor, you wouldn’t even be able to detect it were you to take a direct sample.”

A spokesman for Entergy Corp., the New Orleans-based company that operates Indian Point, said the overflow was “likely the cause of the elevated tritium levels.”

“Tritium in the ground is not in accordance with our standards, but I think people should keep in mind there’s no health or safety consequences,” spokesman Jerry Nappi said. “There is no impact on drinking water on or off site.”

There has been a history of groundwater contamination at Indian Point. In 2009 a federal oversight agency issued a report after about 100,000 gallons of tritium-tainted water entered the groundwater supply. Then in 2014, elevated levels of tritium were also found in two monitoring wells at the plant. At that time officials said the contamination likely stemmed from an earlier maintenance shutdown.

Indian Point’s tritium crisis is actually part of a national tritium crisis. A 2009 Associated Press investigation showed that fully 75 percent of America’s 65 nuclear plant sites have leaked tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen which poses the greatest risk of causing cancer when it ends up in drinking water.