Emergency Manager: No reason for concern after radioactive leak at nuclear station

Published: May. 15, 2013 at 3:26 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 23, 2013 at 2:43 PM EDT
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Photo Source: Duke Energy
Photo Source: Duke Energy

LAKE WYLIE, SC (WBTV) - Federal regulators say more than 100 gallons of water, with traces of a radioactive hydrogen isotope, have leaked at the Catawba Nuclear Station.

According to a report from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the leak was discovered around 11:23 p.m. on Tuesday night. Officials at the Lake Wylie-based nuclear station reported the leak to federal officials around 2:52 a.m. Wednesday morning.

The report states that a "leak greater than 100 gallons containing tritium has the potential to reach groundwater. The source has been identified. Actions to isolate this source are being initiated."

Tritium is a radioactive form hydrogen by bonding together three hydrogen atoms. WBTV has learned the atoms take just over 12 years to break down.

"Everyone is exposed to small amounts of tritium every day, because it occurs naturally in the environment and the foods we eat," according to the NRC's website.

The tritium levels in this water were less than one-half of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency drinking water standards and pose no public health risks, Duke Energy stated in a release on Wednesday afternoon.

"All water is contained at the Catawba site and is not in close proximity to any drinking water wells," said Kelvin Henderson, Catawba site vice president.

The location of this water is about a half-mile inside the station's property.

"This is not anything that causes us any level of concern," said York County Emergency Management Director Cotton Howell. "There's certainly no immediate risk. All the testing will be done and appropriate action will be taken. The likelihood of this actually getting into the ground water is rare."

Howell says on a "day like today" it will likely just evaporate.

"No reason for concern by anyone around the property or employees on-site," Howell said. "Nothing to be concerned about. It is monitored, it is being watched, it is being taken care of. There are measures going on, as we speak, to make sure that what is there is contained and taken care of and no future, or additional, leaks occur."

"Once tritium enters the body, it disperses quickly and is uniformly distributed throughout the soft tissues," the NRC's website stated. "Half of the tritium is excreted within approximately 10 days after exposure."

Dr. Tim Mousseau, a professor of biology at the University of South Carolina, says that there should always be concern when things aren't going as planned at a nuclear facility.

"Tritium is basically radioactive water," Mousseau said, "It gets into everything, it can move through the ground and air and it's really hard to capture."

Mousseau has spent a career studying the effects of nuclear leaks and meltdowns and their effects on the environment.

He says the leak at the Catawba Nuclear Station is a drop on the bucket when compared to the total amount of nuclear-contaminated water being stored at the facility.

According to Duke, Tritium must be ingested in large quantities to pose any significant health risks.

Officials have identified a leak in a fiberglass discharge pipe from the turbine building sump, the report from the USNRC states.

Duke Energy, which runs the plant, is "in the process of installing a temporary sump pump in the turbine building sump in order to isolate the discharge path," according to the report.

The report classifies the tritium leak as a "non-emergency."

Howell says the leak is at a small enough number that officials weren't required to report it to the USNRC.

"The reason, I think, there's visibility to this - a few years ago there was some traces of tritium found in some wells in the immediate area, in some of the on-site monitoring wells that are there," he told WBTV. "Since then, of course, that's heightened awareness."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says drinking water that contains tritium can increase the risk of developing cancer.

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