The Columbus Dispatch

Regulators: Nuclear plant leak didn’t require notice

- Michael Phillis and Amancai Biraben

Minnesota regulators knew four months ago that radioactiv­e waste had leaked from a nuclear power plant in Monticello – but they didn’t announce anything about the leak until last week.

The delay in notifying the public about the November leak raised questions about public safety and transparen­cy, but industry experts said Friday there was never a public health threat. They said Xcel Energy voluntaril­y notified state agencies and reported the leak of tritium to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission soon after it was confirmed and that the leak of 400,000 gallons of radioactiv­e water never reached a threshold that would have required public notificati­on.

“This is something that we struggle with because there is such concern with anything that is nuclear,” said Victoria Mitlyng, a spokespers­on with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “The concern is very, very understand­able. That is why I want to make extra clear the fact that the public in Minnesota, the people, the community near the plant, was not and is not in danger.”

State officials said that while they knew of the leak in November, they waited to get more informatio­n before making a public announceme­nt.

“We knew there was a presence of tritium in one monitoring well, however Xcel had not yet identified the source of the leak and its location,” Minnesota Pollution Control Agency spokespers­on Michael Rafferty said Thursday. “Now that we have all the informatio­n about where the leak occurred, how much was released into groundwate­r and that contaminat­ed groundwate­r had moved beyond the original location, we are sharing this informatio­n.”

Tritium is a radioactiv­e isotope of hydrogen that occurs naturally in the environmen­t and is a common byproduct of nuclear plant operations. It emits a weak form of beta radiation that does not travel very far and cannot penetrate human skin, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said a significan­t health risk would only occur if people consumed fairly high amounts of tritium. That risk is contained if the plume stays on the company’s site, which Xcel Energy and Minnesota officials said is the case.

If regulatory officials are sure it didn’t move off site, people shouldn’t have to worry about their safety, he said, adding that companies usually take action when onsite monitoring wells detect elevated levels of contaminan­ts like tritium.

Mitlyng said there’s no official requiremen­t for nuclear plants to report all tritium leaks to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Instead, Xcel Energy had previously agreed to report certain tritium leaks to the state. When Xcel Energy shares informatio­n with the state, it also shares it with the commission.

The commission posted a notificati­on about the leak on its website Nov. 23, noting that the plant reported it to the state a day earlier. The report classified the leak as a nonemergen­cy. The notice said the source of the tritium was being investigat­ed at that time.

Beyond that, there was no widespread notificati­on to the public before Thursday.

 ?? EVAN FROST/MINNESOTA PUBLIC RADIO VIA AP, FILE ?? Cooling towers release heat generated by boiling water reactors at Xcel Energy’s Nuclear Generating Plant in Monticello, Minn.
EVAN FROST/MINNESOTA PUBLIC RADIO VIA AP, FILE Cooling towers release heat generated by boiling water reactors at Xcel Energy’s Nuclear Generating Plant in Monticello, Minn.

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