published Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

Tritium detected in groundwater at Sequoyah Nuclear Plant

Cooling towers let off steam at the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant.
Cooling towers let off steam at the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant.
Photo by Jake Daniels.
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TVA's nuclear troubles seem to be mounting.

The utility now has active safety concern flags from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission raised at all three of its operating nuclear plants.

Additionally, Tennessee Valley Authority officials acknowledged on Tuesday they have found elevated levels of tritium in a groundwater sample taken from a monitoring well at the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant.

TVA spokesman Ray Golden said there is no indication the radioactive material has migrated in groundwater beyond the Soddy-Daisy plant's property, which borders the Tennessee River.

Golden also said a new Watts Bar Nuclear Plant "white" safety finding was raised in September by NRC inspectors and TVA was notified last week. Golden said it was an equipment issue and is associated with the nuclear security division at Watts Bar, not the plant's operating system.

Under NRC's color-coded inspection findings, white is least serious, then yellow, then red. A plant operating with no safety problems is coded as green. Each increasing level concern calls for more NRC oversight. Each plant reactor is graded in several different disciplines, ranging from security to occupational radiation safety.

NRC spokesman Joey Ledford -- citing security -- would not confirm anything about the Watts Bar security issue, except that the NRC had sent a letter of concern to TVA.

"I won't say it's unprecedented, but it's not typical," Ledford said of TVA as a nuclear operator receiving flagged NRC safety concerns at every one of its operating plants at the same time.

Golden said, however, that it is the first time in TVA history that all three of its plants have been flagged for concerns resulting in enhanced inspections.

NRC gave Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant a "red," or highest safety concern flag, last summer after TVA and inspectors discovered one of the reactors had been operating for as much as 18 months with a dysfunctional cooling valve.

And this fall, NRC gave Sequoyah Nuclear Plant a white finding because one of its two reactors had four unplanned shutdowns in less than a year. The reactor since has had a fifth unplanned "scram."

Ledford and Golden said the immediate safety and security concerns have been dealt with and the plants are operating safely.

Tritium discovery

The tritium discovery in monitoring wells at Sequoyah will be monitored by NRC, but is not included in the plant's safety finding, Ledford said.

Golden and Sequoyah Plant Manager Paul Simmons said the elevated level of tritium, found in one of two new onsite monitoring wells at Sequoyah, poses no threat to the health and safety of the public.

Golden said the tritium may be left over from a spill in 2003 when an underground pipe leaked. That leak was found and fixed, he said.

Simmons pledged continued monitoring.

"The newly installed groundwater monitoring wells were placed in an area known to have contained tritium that was previously reported," He said in a prepared statement. "The health and safety of the public are our primary concern, which is why providing additional monitoring capability to the plant's groundwater wells is an important measure for protecting the community and the environment."

Tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, is a byproduct of making electricity at nuclear power plants. It also can naturally occur in the atmosphere.

The highest level found in the sampling on Dec. 16 was about 23,000 picocuries per liter.

Golden said the Environmental Protection Agency's drinking water standard is 20,000 picocuries per liter. The nuclear industries "voluntary reporting level" also is 20,000 picocuries per liter, he said.

A "curie" is the standard measure for the intensity of radioactivity contained in a sample; a picocurie is one trillionth of a curie.

Golden said the tritium has been detected in groundwater, which is not used for drinking water or irrigation purposes, and no potable water wells are downstream of where the tritium was found. The plant borders the Tennessee River.

Additionally, TVA confirmed no detectable levels of tritium in any sampling of the Tennessee River where the plant discharges water, Golden said.

"It's a little like comparing apples and oranges, but we've still reported the finding to federal, state and local officials," Golden said.

Golden said TVA "voluntarily" reported the tritium findings to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

TDEC spokeswoman Tisha Calabrese-Benton said NRC is the regulator, not the state.

Adena Williams, spokeswoman for the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, said well water monitoring no longer is part of the health department's work. Instead it now falls under the Hamilton County Public Works Department.

To put the detection numbers into perspective, Golden said if a person drank two liters of water every day with this amount of tritium for a year, he or she would receive a radiation dose of about 4 millirems. In comparison, one X-ray from a dental exam will have a radiation dose of about 10 millirems. On average, Americans receive about 620 millirems of background exposure annually from natural and manmade radioactive sources, according to TVA.

Simmons said TVA is "reviewing the new monitoring well sample results, determining the cause of these elevated levels and how they relate to the previously reported releases of tritium."

In 2003, TVA discovered a significant leak in underground piping carrying tritium-laced water. That underground piping was abandoned and TVA installed new underground pipe to fix the problem, Golden said.

Under normal operating circumstances, the tritium contaminated water is held in holding tanks and gradually mixed with clean water until it is low enough in radiation to be safety released to the river. Those releases are permitted by the state and federal authorities, Golden said.

Golden said Sequoyah now has a total of 16 groundwater monitoring wells on the Sequoyah site. He said TVA also monitors private wells near the plant and no tritium has been detected off the plant site.

Watts Bar Security

Golden said the Watts Bar security problem "was identified during a recent inspection of the plant's physical security -- fences, cameras, detection and intrusion systems."

TVA took immediate action to fix the problem, he said.

"TVA takes its responsibilities to physically protect the nuclear plant very seriously," he said. "TVA is in the process of conducting a root cause analysis to determine the cause of the NRC finding within security and will implement a series of corrective actions."

Ledford said the problems pointed up by NRC's color-coded findings don't appear to be related.

"There is no indication there is a fleetwide problem, but we are going to keep monitoring," he said.

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about Pam Sohn...

Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...

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Comments do not represent the opinions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, nor does it review every comment. Profanities, slurs and libelous remarks are prohibited. For more information you can view our Terms & Conditions and/or Ethics policy.
najones75 said...

A clear and blatant all-out leftist assault on the nuclear power industry. Not only is there a common sense and likely reason for these self reported test results, but the results themselves pose no threat to safety or public health. But you get these conclusions only if you recognize them thinly laced within the majority of assumptions expressed by the author. You've outdone yourself once again TFP!!

December 21, 2011 at 6:14 a.m.
holdout said...

The Di-hydrogen Monoxide in the well is more dangerous. Lets ban it.

December 21, 2011 at 7:36 a.m.
KWVeteran said...

And carbon dioxide has been detected in the air around the plant!

December 21, 2011 at 8:42 a.m.
McRand said...

But wait, why is there Tritium in the water at all? Is it not an indication of seepage? Where is it coming from exactly? Shouldn't it be discovered before it gets worse? Who's looking into this to correct it, or is anybody right now?

December 21, 2011 at 8:51 a.m.
mrredskin said...

all i've ever noticed an abundance of around here is the methane spewing out of every article Pam writes in support of orgs like the Clean air Coalition, concerned scientist group or whatever other anit-knowledge/fact based org there is.

December 21, 2011 at 9:35 a.m.
mrredskin said...

oh, and Pam, where are your numbers for how much has been detected? if what i have heard is correct, if you drink about a gallon of water a day for a year from where this was measured, it would be equal to the amount of radiation you would receive on a flight from New York to Los Angeles... ONE WAY.

so are you going to write an article about the dangers of flying across country, once a year?

December 21, 2011 at 9:40 a.m.
holdout said...

It is mixed with clean water until the levels are safe for release. There were also some old pipes that were leaking that are no longer used so it is not going to get worse. The half life of tritium is something like 12 and a third years and it decays by emitting beta particles so being exposed to it isn't dangerous. It can combine with oxygen and become a form of water that can be absorbed. Our atmosphere produces tritium naturally by interacting with cosmic rays so it will always be around us.

December 21, 2011 at 9:44 a.m.
inquiringmind said...

Holdout, an exposure limit is set based on probable heath effects. all has to be statistical, but nevertheless, the release exceeded the limit so all your argument is just that, argument. Looking at this url: http://www.physics.isu.edu/radinf/tritium.htm

we find "(although beta particles are stopped by a layer of dead skin,) the main hazard associated with tritium is internal exposure from inhalation or ingestion. In addition, due to the relatively long half life and short biological half life, an intake of tritium must be in large amounts to pose a significant health risk. Although, in keeping with the philosophy of ALARA, internal exposure should be kept as low as practical."

Have you ever heard about skin cancer? If you don't want to worry about it, then don't. but don't force your view onev

December 21, 2011 at 10:42 a.m.
Shock said...

I didn't read this article as an assault on the nuclear industry. The article clearly states that the amounts in the monitoring well were not much above the threshold for safety and that further monitoring would take place. It's all very reasonable and non-alarmist. It appeared to me to be a factual account of TVA's report.

Would those of you bashing this article be happier if the newspaper never reported on any TVA nuclear safety concerns? I'd certainly rather be informed about a small abnormality than not get any information until there was a meltdown.

December 21, 2011 at 11:21 a.m.
holdout said...

Well that was kind of my point inquiringmind. I really wasn't arguing anything.

December 21, 2011 at 11:33 a.m.
lifeisgreat said...

Pam- you may need to put some numbers in your article; the average American receives 620 millirem of radiation per year from natural background radiation sources- one dental exam will have a radiation dose of about 10 millirem - and as mentioned a cross country flight will yield about 4 millirem each way. McRand- Obviously TVA is monitoring since they were the ones to find and report elevated tritium concentrations. They did discover and report, and are investigating to fix the problem (as mentioned). Thank you for the heads up TFP but put some hard data out there too so that people aren't in alarm for their safety!

December 21, 2011 at 3:41 p.m.
heneh said...

There was a seminar held in Chattanooga that was facilitated by Ecologic Institute. On their website they state "The US and the EU should admit their errors concerning nuclear power calling them costly mistakes and commit to investing in renewable energies, phase out nuclear power." That seminar was held in November and Mayor Littlefield gave the keynote address. I would like for more studies to be made before we close down our nuclear plants because I know that there are some groups who want to do just that and will do whatever to bring it about. Wake up Chattanooga.

December 21, 2011 at 8:59 p.m.
GarryMorgan said...

Here we see more nuclear security concerns. It was reported in June of this year that 8% of nuclear plants failed their physical security tests. Disturbing since the tests are conducted with notice. Attempts were made to gain access to sensitive critical areas which would cause a maximum of destruction to a nuclear plant.

A short time ago attempted murder and terrorist threats was an issue at Watts Bar related to those speaking up about safety violations. Incidents which were reported extensively this summer in a national news expose on the issue. Nuclear Security is a most serious issue which extends to personnel security as well as physical security.

Another security concern is the nuclear industry attempting to circumvent and influence the regulatory process in support of industry finances not public safety.

Garry Morgan, U.S. Army Retired

December 22, 2011 at 3:32 p.m.
toxicradiation said...

Tritium’s Health Effects •Can be ingested in food and water, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin •Has a half–life of 12.5 days, making it dangerous for 120- 248 years •Is taken up by plants and animals in the environment and increases in concentration as it goes from one organism to another (bioconcentrates) •Causes tumors and cancer in the lungs and digestive tract •Shrinks the testicles and ovaries even at quite low doses and causes birth defects, mental retardation, decreased brain weight, loss of reproductive abilities of offspring, and stunted, deformed fetuses •After entering the body, is found in body fluids, organs and tissues, and is uniformly distributed through all biological fluids within one to two hours9

February 3, 2012 at 8:40 a.m.
toxicradiation said...

A local history of radioactive leaks into the groundwater and Tennessee River - in lieu of adding more maybe you could tell us what you are doing to keep this from happening? There are now hundreds of thousands of gallons a year of radiaoactive wastewater flowing into the rivers of America - Tritum is a Beta which means its also airborne - Your thoughts?

20100407 Browns Ferry Unit 3 Approximately 1,000 gallons of radioactively contaminated water leaked from Condensate Storage Tank No. 5 as workers were transferring water between condensate storage tanks. A worker conducting routine rounds observed water leaking from an open test valve near the top of CST No. 5.

20080105 Browns Ferry Unit 3 The condensate storage tank overflowed due to failed tank level instrumentation. The spilled water flowed into the sump in the condensate piping tunnel, triggering a high level alarm that prompted workers to initiate the search that discovered the overflow condition. Some of the spilled water may have permeated through the pipe tunnel into the ground.

20060700 Sequoyah Unit 1 An investigation to identify sources of tritium in groundwater found detectable levels of tritium in the Unit 1 and Unit 2 refueling water storage tank moat water.

20060700 Sequoyah Unit 2 An investigation to identify sources of tritium in groundwater found detectable levels of tritium in the storage tank moat water. 20060200 Browns Ferry Unit 3 A soil sample taken from underneath the radwaste ball joint vault(located outside the radwaste doors) indicated trace levels of cobalt-60 and cesium-137.

20060200 Browns Ferry Unit 1 A soil sample taken from underneath the radwaste ball joint vault(located outside the radwaste doors) indicated trace levels of cobalt-60 and cesium-137.

20060200 Browns Ferry Unit 2 A soil sample taken from underneath the radwaste ball joint vault(located outside the radwaste doors) indicated trace levels of cobalt-60 and cesium-137.

February 3, 2012 at 8:47 a.m.
toxicradiation said...

Require Human Impact Test -§ 51.20 Criteria for and identification of licensing and regulatory actions requiring environmental impact statements(a)Licensing and regulatory actions requiring an environmental impact statement shall meet at least one of the following criteria:(1) The proposed action is a major Federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.(2) The proposed action involves a matter which the Commission, in the exercise of its discretion, has determined should be covered by an environmental impact statement.(b) The following types of actions require an environmental impact statement or a supplement to an environmental impact statement:(1)Issuance of a limited work authorization or a permit to construct a nuclear power reactor, testing facility, or fuel reprocessing plant under part 50 of this chapter, or issuance of an early site permit under part 52 of this chapter.(2) Issuance or renewal of a full power or design capacity license to operate a nuclear power reactor, testing facility, or fuel reprocessing plant under part 50 of this chapter, or a combined license under part 52 of this chapter. (3) Issuance of a permit to construct or a design capacity license to operate or renewal of a design capacity license to operate an isotopic enrichment plant pursuant to part 50 of this chapter. (4) Conversion of a provisional operating license for a nuclear power reactor, testing facility or fuel reprocessing plant to a full term or design capacity license pursuant to part 50 of this chapter if a final environmental impact statement covering full term or design capacity operation has not been previously prepared. (7) Issuance of a license to possess and use special nuclear material for processing and fuel fabrication, scrap recovery, or conversion of uranium hexafluoride pursuant to part 70 of this chapter.((10) Issuance of a license for a uranium enrichment facility.(11) Issuance of renewal of a license authorizing receipt and disposal of radioactive waste from other persons pursuant to part 61 of this chapter.(12) Issuance of a license amendment pursuant to part 61 of this chapter authorizing (i) closure of a land disposal site, (ii) transfer of the license to the disposal site owner for the purpose of institutional control, or (iii) termination of the license at the end of the institutional control period.(13) Issuance of a construction authorization and license pursuant to part 60 or part 63 of this chapter.(14) Any other action which the Commission determines is a major Commission action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment. As provided in § 51.22(b), the Commission may, in special circumstances, prepare an environmental impact statement on an action covered by a categorical exclusion.

February 3, 2012 at 8:59 a.m.
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