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Tritium

The nuclear industry can be its own worst enemy at times.  Several plants around the country have detected leakage of tritium into the ground on the plant sites.  Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen.  Tritium leakage is particularly problematic because the tritium is usually a constituent of water and is chemically identical to ordinary water so it cannot be filtered out or cleaned up.  I should be clear that, thus far, no hazardous concentration of tritium has ever gotten off the plant site of a U.S. commercial nuclear power plant.  The findings come from test wells that are drilled on site for the purpose of finding leaks.  Well, some plants have found them, which is bad, and that’s giving the anti-nuclear folks something legitimate to complain about.  It doesn’t help matters that some of the people speaking on behalf of one particular utility have given less-than-fully-straight answers to questions about it.

The state of Vermont appears to be reacting to that severely.  The Vermont Yankee plant has tritium leaks found in test wells.  The tritium levels are not trivial, and there is concern that groundwater movement could bring the contaminated water into the Connecticut River.  Their legislature is working to block a needed extension of the operating license for the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant currently owned and operated by Entergy Corp.   That decision will hurt Vermont because, as the Wiki article says, the plant provides more than a third of the state’s power.  But I’m guessing the decision won’t be reversed.  Vermont is a northeastern state where environmental extremists are politically very potent.  It’s too bad the utility industry hasn’t done a better job of educating people about where electricity comes from because I’ve got a hunch that the vote in the Vermont legislature stems partly from people honestly thinking they can power the U.S. economy with windmills and green gadgets.  Who needs a leaky old nuke when we’ve got this nifty solar panel?

The ill tidings from the Vermont Yankee plant should serve as a stark warning to the U.S. nuclear industry which is trying to come out of a decades-long period of dormancy.  There are plants all over the country with buried piping that is getting old.  It’s an issue industry management knows about.  The utilities can argue — and it will be true — that the vast majority of this piping was properly coated at the time of its burial and that excavation backfills used materials that will preserve the coatings.  But that won’t answer the real concern that on occasion, perforations called “holidays” do occur in buried piping, and if the pipes have any radioactive materials in them, the stuff is going to seep out.  If the radioactive material happens to be tritium, there is only one way to stop it: Dig up the piping and all the contaminated dirt and dispose of it as radwaste. 

An excavation project like this would inflict severe financial hardship on the tiny number of U.S. nukes with tritium issues.  But if I could speak to all the stockholders of publicly traded utilities, I’d ask a simple question: What is the alternative?  And if I could offer a word of advice to companies such as the Southern Company who are about to build new nukes, it’d be this one: Do not ever bury any pipes on your plant site.  Run them in shielded pipe chases above ground.  If you can’t afford that kind of construction, you should question whether you really want to be in the nuclear business.

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