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“Indian Point leak of radioactive element spreads” by Greg Clary

“BUCHANAN — Radioactive strontium 90 has spread to a third well at Indian Point and has been found at levels three times the amount allowed in drinking water — within 150 feet of the Hudson River.

Officials for Entergy Nuclear Northeast, which owns Indian Point, released the test results late yesterday, noting a strong likelihood that the radioactive isotope is reaching the Hudson River.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission confirmed the findings, adding that Indian Point is the only nuclear power plant in the nation that is leaking strontium 90. The agency oversees 103 plants in the United States.

“Clearly, these are different findings than we’ve seen, but they’re not near any drinking water supplies,” said Jim Steets, a spokesman for Entergy Nuclear Northeast. “It still remains that there’s no public health threat here.”

Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, confirmed the numbers late yesterday as well as the lack of a threat to public health at the levels found.

The leak is coming from a spent-fuel pool about 300 feet from the river, company engineers have said. The 400,000-gallon pool uses water to cool spent fuel rods waiting for disposal.

Scientists also identified in the samples from Feb. 27 elevated levels of tritium and nickel 63, both of which emit low levels of radiation, company officials said. Commission tests showed similar results.

David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said yesterday that the concentrations of strontium raise health concerns despite still being contained to the nuclear plant’s grounds and not showing up in any drinking water wells.

“The clue to the health concerns is in the (Environmental Protection Agency’s) limits,” Lochbaum said. “For tritium, it’s 20,000 picocuries per liter of water, versus strontium, which is only 8 picocuries per liter.”

The latest test results show that well No. 37, the testing area closest to the Hudson River on a straight line west from the spent-fuel pool, showed strontium levels ranging as high 26.4 picocuries per liter of water. Amounts of strontium at other wells were less than 2 picocuries per liter.

Lochbaum said once strontium 90 levels get above allowable drinking water levels, the risk for cancer and other health problems rises.

“At three times the amount allowed for drinking water, you’re not in danger of cancer, but you’re at higher risk,” Lochbaum said. “It will cause different damage to different people. Tritium doesn’t reside in the body that long, so it does less damage. Strontium tends to get absorbed in the bones and teeth and resides in the body for a very long time.”

Lochbaum said both isotopes are unstable and throw off radiation trying to achieve stability, destroying nearby cells.

The nuclear safety engineer said strontium does much more serious damage to living tissue. For comparison purposes, tritium would hit like a pingpong ball, strontium like a bowling ball.

Their atomic weights back that up. Tritium’s is 3, while strontium 90 is called that because its atomic weight is 90. Plutonium’s atomic weight ranges as high as 240. Atomic weight is defined as the average weight of an atom of an element — the total mass of protons and neutrons in an atom.

Lochbaum said the volume of water of the Hudson River diminishes the impact on water in the area because it dilutes whatever comes into it. He did acknowledge that there is potential for the strontium to settle into the river’s bottom, which would harm the environment.

Riverkeeper, the environmental organization that works to protect the health of the Hudson River, said the unmonitored releases were unacceptable, regardless of the river’s ability to clean itself.

“Clearly the NRC, Entergy and the state have grossly underestimated the gravity of the radioactive contamination at Indian Point,” said Lisa Rainwater van Suntum, Riverkeeper’s Indian Point campaign director. “If this were a safely operating nuclear facility, it wouldn’t be polluting the Hudson River and our environment with one of the most deadly toxins on Earth. Isn’t it time the NRC and Entergy stop trying to defend this leaky, decaying plant?”

Top county officials within the plants’ shadow also expressed their concerns.

Susan Tolchin, chief adviser to Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano, said the daily releases of information has the public on a bit of a roller-coaster ride.

“First there is (strontium 90), then there isn’t, then there is,” Tolchin said. “Who do you believe? What’s wrong with this picture? Who’s watching the store?”

Rockland County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef was equally upset.

“That’s very disturbing,” Vanderhoef said yesterday after learning the new results. “I’m not a scientist, but it seems that it’s been leaking for a while. What else are we going to find? This stuff is complicated enough that you have to be able to understand the science of it all, but this is not good news.””

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