Nuclear plants need better groundwater monitoring

U.S. nuclear power plants and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) need to improve how groundwater leaks are monitored and reported to the public, the Government Accountability Office concluded in a new analysis.

Experts in the GAO’s public health discussion group said that more information could enhance identifying leaks and characterizing their impacts. They also said the leaks have not affected the environment outside of the plant but that they could affect plant decommissioning, including additional remediation to meet NRC regulations for unrestricted release of the site.

The findings were made public in the report “Oversight of Underground Piping Systems Commensurate with Risk, but Proactive Measures Could Help Address Future Leaks,” released by the GAO June 21.

Experts also identified the need for licensees to transparently report monitoring data and for groundwater monitoring programs to be independently reviewed. Currently, NRC inspection requirements focus on ensuring the piping works rather than providing information about the condition of underground piping systems. Additionally, NRC’s groundwater monitoring requirements generally focus on monitoring off-site but not on-site locations. This, in turn, could prevent leaks from migrating off-site.

Unnamed “key stakeholders” said that NRC should require licensees to provide leak information in a more timely fashion and make that information more accessible to the public.

In response to leaks, the nuclear power industry has implemented two voluntary initiatives to increase public confidence in plant safety. The first was intended to improve on-site groundwater monitoring to promptly detect leaks. The second to provide reasonable assurance of underground piping systems' structural and leaktight integrity. In addition, NRC has assessed its regulatory framework for, and oversight of, inspection of underground piping systems and groundwater monitoring. Based on the low risk posed by spills to date, NRC determined that no further regulations are needed at this time.

GAO said it held discussion groups with experts and stakeholders through the National Academy of Sciences. During those sessions, GAO asked participants to review three case studies, analyze documents and visit seven power plant sites as part of the analysis.

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