“BUCHANAN – Indian Point officials have found traces of tritium in the nuclear plants’ sewer pipes that connect to the Buchanan sewage system, the first indication that the radioactive isotope may be reaching the village.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials confirmed the report yesterday, saying they would be independently verifying the test results sent in a company e-mail to Buchanan and other elected officials and the agency.
The memo, obtained by The Journal News, stated that during an April 30 test of sewage at the plant, tritium was found at a radiation concentration of 8,000 pico curies per liter – a fraction of the 10 million pico curies per liter allowed in sewage.
Company and regulatory officials stressed that there was no threat to public or worker safety.
Westchester County officials said the amount of radiation wasn’t as much of a concern as how the radiation ended up in sewer pipes.
“We were notified immediately, and from what we understand, there’s no threat because it’s a very, very low level,” said Susan Tolchin, chief adviser to Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano. “The issue is how it got there … and we need a full investigation to determine that.”
Indian Point officials have already begun their probe, they say, though the answers may take awhile.
“At this point, it’s too soon to even have a hypothesis,” said Donald Mayer, the Entergy official in charge of investigating groundwater contamination at Indian Point. “We obtained some additional samples (Tuesday), and those will tell us where we have to go next.”
Mayer said the company would be testing for strontium 90 in the sewage system as well as tritium, though the strontium tests would not have results as fast because the laboratory work takes longer. Strontium 90 is a more dangerous radioactive isotope produced during a nuclear reaction.
Mayer said because the tritium was found in a sewage line, the company is focusing on sewage sump pumps and the rest of the system.
“There’s something that’s getting into one of these lines,” Mayer said. “It could be a crack in a pipe.”
He said the company has been monitoring the sewer lines since the fall and got a couple of readings early this year showing barely detectible levels of tritium. The most recent reading was the largest by a factor of two, Mayer said.
NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said the agency wanted more information about how tritium could have “gotten into the presumably closed sewage disposal system.”
“We have an inspector up there this week who specializes in the whole groundwater contamination issue, so we’ll be following up on that,” he said.
The plants have been leaking tritium since at least August 2005, when workers discovered a crack at the base of a building that houses a 400,000-gallon spent-fuel storage tank at Indian Point 2.
As nuclear plant officials dug wells to determine the extent of the tritium leak, they found the radioactive isotope strontium 90 leaking from Indian Point 1 – which was shut down in 1974. The two leaks do not appear to be connected, company officials have said.
Hydrologists and other experts had said that whatever leaking radiation was leaving the site was likely going into the Hudson River, where it would be diluted many times over by the large volume of water.
Buchanan Mayor Daniel O’Neill said he was not concerned about the findings because the levels found are so low, but was interested in seeing the results of more testing.
“The sewage system is a closed one. The drainage lines go directly to the treatment plant,” O’Neill said. “The fact that there have been some leaks, of course, is not good, but you have to put it into context that this is an electric power plant and there are always going to be problems when it comes to making electricity.”
O’Neill said he would rather live next to a nuclear plant than coal-burning plant, given the amount of pollution around other power plants in the country.
He said the village drinking water would not be compromised by radioactive isotopes leaking at the plant because the water is piped in from reservoirs farther north.
George Smith, a foreman at the Buchanan sewage treatment plant, said the operation handles about 350,000 gallons of sewage daily. The 23-year veteran said Indian Point’s portion of that is “very little,” though he didn’t know an exact percentage.
The sewage treatment plant is about a mile from the nuclear plant, Smith said, and the effluent from the plant takes a few days to make it from Indian Point through the treatment plant before it is released into the Hudson River at permitted levels.
State Department of Environmental Conservation officials said they were aware of the tritium in the sewer lines and will track this latest development as they have the earlier sampling.
“DEC is still evaluating the most recent data,” agency spokeswoman Kimberly Chupa wrote in an e-mail to The Journal News. “To date, the data shows that the concentrations of strontium and tritium are below regulatory limits. The Department will conduct additional testing if it is determined to be necessary.””
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