A federal watchdog report released yesterday found the country's nuclear power plant operators haven't figured out how to detect leaks of radioactive water from aging pipelines under nuclear reactors.
Democratic Reps. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, and Peter Welch of Vermont released a Government Accountability Office report that found all 65 sites where nuclear plants are located in the United States have experienced leakage or spillage of radioactive material into the groundwater, some of which is attributable to aging underground pipes.
The aging pipes, which can be difficult to access, can leak tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen -- and there are no assurances that such leaks will be detected quickly, according to the report. The nuclear industry implemented a voluntary program, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reviewed its own regulations and found no further rules were required, GAO said. But the commission cannot be assured -- without re-evaluating current inspections -- that leaks are detected before they pose a threat to the public, the report found, which is exacerbated by the fact that the pipes are aging.
"As nuclear power plants age, their underground piping systems tend to corrode, but since these systems are largely inaccessible and difficult to inspect, the condition of many underground piping systems at plants across the country is unknown," GAO said.
Markey said the GAO report and an Associated Press report yesterday that also focused on leaking underground pipes make the case that federal regulators need to step up their oversight.
"There would be no warning because no one ever checks the integrity of these underground pipes," Markey said. "The NRC must require inspections of these pipes before they deteriorate instead of its current policy of crossing fingers and hoping for the best."
Markey said he first questioned the oversight of pipes under nuclear plants in 2009 after a buried cooling water pipe at the Indian Point nuclear plant in New York was found to have a 1.5-inch hole.
GAO also found pressure and flow tests NRC currently uses do not provide information about the structural integrity of underground pipes, including whether the pipeline walls have degraded to a point that hinders the pipe's performance, Markey noted.
The Associated Press report that Markey cited found corroded underground pipes underlying up to 75 percent of the country's nuclear reactors are leaking tritium into groundwater.
The Nuclear Energy Institute yesterday criticized the AP's coverage of the tritium leaks, saying the story makes only a vague reference to the fact that in 2009 the industry voluntarily launched an underground piping integrity initiative to better manage issues related to the integrity of underground piping.
"Both NRC and industry safety indicators are at or near all-time highs," said Tony Pietrangelo, NEI's senior vice president. "It is not possible to achieve this outstanding level of performance on a consistent basis if the facility is not being well managed and well maintained."
NRC also released a statement yesterday that it disagreed with the AP's findings and questioned the article's conclusions but that the commission welcomes additional attention to nuclear safety and security.
"It is this type of dialogue that helps us to engage the public and our other stakeholders, and to continue to be vigilant in all aspects of our safety mission. And, we are always committed to doing better and doing it right," the commission said.
Click here to read the GAO report.
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