Health Department says tritium from Vermont Yankee has reached Connecticut shoreline

By Dorothy Davis

The Vermont Department of Health has issued a release stating tritium originating from a leak at the Vermont Yankee nuclear station has been detected for the first time in water taken at the shoreline of the Connecticut River. The agency confirmed laboratory results from samples collected July 18 and July 25 measured 534 and 611 picocuries per liter (pCi/L), just above the lower limit of detection. The allowable limit for drinking water set by the Environmental Protection Agency is 20,000 pCi/L.

“We have been tracking the plume of tritium-contaminated groundwater as it moves slowly toward the river, and this new finding confirms that the tritium has traveled from the Yankee site to the Connecticut River,” said Health Commissioner Harry Chen, MD.

In January 2010, the Vermont Yankee Power Station notified the Vermont Department of Health that samples collected in November of 2009 from a ground monitoring well on the site contained tritium, signaling an unintended release of radioactive material. An investigation was launched; and in February, it was discovered that a pair of steam pipes inside the Advanced Off-Gas (AOG) pipe tunnel were badly corroded and leaking nuclear steam. This event was followed by an additional leak at the AOG drain, which occurred as the system was being restarted following a scheduled refueling outage.

According to Bloomberg, Vermont Yankee’s owner and operator Entergy Corp. (NYSE:ETR) has contested the results released by the Vermont Health Department, outlining its testing of the same July 18 and July 25 samples showed levels of tritium below the minimum detectable amount..

"Results from our laboratory testing of those same samples ... show levels that are below that same extreme lower limit," Vermont Yankee spokesman Larry Smith said.

Smith also told the news agency that Entergy now wants an independent third party to analyze both sets of samples to resolve the discrepancy. 

Gov. Peter Shumlin has since written to plant officials calling for an increase in the number of extraction wells to prevent contamination from the nuclear facility from reaching the river or groundwater supplies. In addition, he instructed the Health Department to begin obtaining weekly samples of water from the Connecticut River at the shoreline and other locations in the river, which the department has begun.

In March of this year, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) awarded the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station another 20-year operating license. Entergy submitted the application for an extension of its operating license in January 2006 but is currently embroiled in a legal battle to prevent the plant’s closure as early as March 2012 after Vermont senators voted 26-4 last winter in a landmark decision against Entergy’s request.

Although license renewals for nuclear power reactors are overseen by the NRC, Vermont is the only state to have a law that also requires approval from the Legislature.

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