Somewhere around 75 percent of U.S. nuclear power plants have been found leaking the radioactive element Tritium into the ground to various extents. Corroded piping buried underground seems to be the main problem, and a problem that can affect groundwater if ignored.
According to the AP, the leaks have mostly been limited to areas inside power plant boundaries, and havent reached public water supplies yet, but samples show radioactive concentrations that are many times over what's considered a healthy level.
Tritium, which is a radioactive form of hydrogen, has leaked from at least 48 of 65 sites, according to U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission records reviewed as part of the AP's yearlong examination of safety issues at aging nuclear power plants. Leaks from at least 37 of those facilities contained concentrations exceeding the federal drinking water standard - sometimes at hundreds of times the limit.
Tritium is considered less harmless than an X-ray, but exposure to the element is still considered a cancer risk nonetheless. The report says that safety standards at U.S. nuclear plants have been relaxed over the years to keep them operational, and now that these structures are starting to age, hazardous problems are going unnoticed.
The leaks sometimes go undiscovered for years, the AP found. Many of the pipes or tanks have been patched, and contaminated soil and water have been removed in some places. But leaks are often discovered later from other nearby piping, tanks or vaults. Mistakes and defective material have contributed to some leaks. However, corrosion - from decades of use and deterioration - is the main cause. And, safety engineers say, the rash of leaks suggest nuclear operators are hard put to maintain the decades-old systems.
And despite the fact that some plants have had contaminated groundwater 750 times over the radioactive limit, nuclear energy authorities claim the issue will have no impact on public health.
"The public health and safety impact of this is next to zero," said Tony Pietrangelo, chief nuclear officer of the industry's Nuclear Energy Institute. "This is a public confidence issue."
And while that may be true, I think most of us would still rather not have that stuff moving through the environment. [AP]