It doesn't take a massive earthquake for radioactive material to leak from nuclear reactors into ground water, it seems.
While authorities are struggling to contain leaks of highly toxic plutonium into the soil at the stricken Fukushima Da-ichi plant in Japan, a report released today by Maryland PIRG says there've been more than two dozen incidents of ground-water contamination at US nuke plants - including one at Calvert Cliffs in southern Maryland.
"At least one out of every four U.S. nuclear reactors (27 out of 104) have leaked tritium – a cancer-causing radioactive form of hydrogen – into groundwater," the MaryPIRG report says.
The report lists leaks from Vermont Yankee in New England, where radioactive tritium was detected in ground water near the plant, at Indian Point in New York, where tritium and strontium leaked from the spent fuel pools not far from the Hudson River, and at New Jersey's Salem plant, where radioactive material was found in ground water in 2002.
The group also said there was a tritium leak in Maryland. In 2005, according to a separate report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, workers at Calvert Cliffs identified tritium in a shallow monitoring well onsite and traced it to an eroded pipe in an underground drainage system. The eroded plastic pipe, two inches in diameter and made of PVC, was put in when the plant was being built in the 1970s to measure the depth of the water table.
Mark Sullivan, spokesman for Constellation Energy Nuclear Group, which runs the Calvert plant, said in an email that the amount of tritium involved posed no risk to the public. "The tritium found on site at Calvert Cliffs in the early 2000s was well below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's comparison value for a safe level," he said. "Given the low tritium level and configuration of the site, there was never a risk to the local drinking water sources....The site's hydrology and topography protect against possible aquifer issues."
Nonetheless, MaryPIRG points to the leaks, "near-miss" accidents and safety violations catalogued in its report as evidence that nuclear power is just too risky to build any new plants or even keep the old ones open.
It's unclear yet how many deaths or illnesses may be attributed to the Japanese reactor explosions and leaks. But risk experts point out that such catastrophes are rare, and that the nuclear industry has a relatively good safety record. As a recent Associated Press story reported, more than 1,300 American workers have died since 2000 in coal, oil and natural gas industry accidents, while no one has been killed by radiation exposure at the nation's nuclear plants.
(Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant, 2005 Baltimore Sun photo by Doug Kapustin)