by David Safier
Good for the Associated Press. Those aren't words I type often, but they're more than deserved for the AP's four part "Aging Nukes" investigative series. Also, good for the Star for giving the series prime billing on the first page of the second section.
Yesterday's story, the first in the series, was about how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has gotten together with the nuke industry and weakened safety rules so aging plants, as much as a decade beyond their intended lifespans, can keep operating.
Today the story is about radioactive tritium leaks at U.S. nuclear reactors. Tritium is pretty low on the danger continuum at the nuke plants -- though it's dangerous stuff when it gets into the groundwater -- but the leaks indicate the level of corrosion in buried water pipes encased in concrete. If tritium is leaking, water is leaking, sometimes from pipes whose purpose is to supply water to cool down reactors when there's an emergency. Can we trust those pipes to do their job when they're most needed? Also in danger are underground electrical cables, which "have been failing at high rates." When will one of those failures stop a plant from responding to an emergency?
This problem has been around for awhile, but it's accelerating, which points to the continued deterioration of these old plants from the 60s and 70s which were supposed to have a 40 year lifespan, max. Of the 38 reported leaks from 2000 to 2009, two-thirds of them have occurred in the last five years. I say "reported leaks" because the industry sometimes covers them up by patching the leaks and removing the contaminated earth.
Equally disturbing is the NRC and nuclear industry's response. They say the only problem is how to explain to people there's really no problem. Really. That's what they say.
Still, the NRC and industry consider the leaks a public relations problem, not a public health or accident threat, records and interviews show.
"The public health and safety impact of this is next to zero," said Tony Pietrangelo, chief nuclear officer of the industry's Nuclear Energy Institute. "This is a public confidence issue."
The story in the paper version of the Star is much shorter than the one online, so if you want all the details, read the story on the website.