400,000 gallons of radioactive water leak from Minnesota nuclear power plant

Xcel Energy cleans up radioactive leak at Monticello

Minnesota regulators said Thursday they are overseeing the clean-up of a leak of 400,000 gallons of radioactive water from Xcel Energy’s Monticello nuclear power plant, and the company said there was no danger to the public. The leak was first spotted in November last year.

“Xcel Energy acted quickly to contain the leak at the facility, which poses no health and safety risk to the local community or the environment,” the Minneapolis-based utility said in a statement.

While Xcel reported the leak of tritiated water to state and federal agencies in late November, the spill was not made public until Thursday.

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“Of course, if there had been any public safety concerns at any point, we would have provided more information immediately,” Chris Clark, president of Xcel Energy-Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, told CBS Minnesota on Thursday. “But we also wanted to make sure we fully understand what’s going on before we start raising concerns with the public around us.”

State officials said they were waiting for more information before going public with it.

“We knew tritium was present in a monitoring well, but Xcel had not yet identified the source of the leak and its location,” said Michael Rafferty, spokesman for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

“Now that we have all the information on where the leak occurred, how much was released into the groundwater, and that contaminated groundwater has migrated past the original site, we are sharing that information,” he said, adding that the water remnants on contained within Xcel’s property and does not pose an immediate risk to public health.

The Minnesota Department of Health also said on its website that the leak did not reach the Mississippi River.

“The groundwater beneath the facility has been found to be slowly moving towards the Mississippi River, but that is the direction it is flowing or moving underground,” Doug Wetzstein, director of the Industry Division at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said CBS Minnesota.

Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that occurs naturally in the environment and is a common by-product of nuclear power plant operations. According to NRC, it emits a weak form of beta radiation that does not travel very far and cannot penetrate human skin. A person who drank water from a spill would only receive a small dose, the NRC says.

The NRC says tritium spills do occur at nuclear power plants from time to time, but that it has repeatedly found that they were either confined to plant property or involved offsite concentrations so low that they did not affect public health or safety. Xcel reported a small tritium leak at Monticello in 2009.

Xcel said it has recovered about 25% of the spilled tritium so far, that recovery efforts are continuing, and that it will install a permanent solution this spring.

The company said it notified the Federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the state on Nov. 22, a day after it confirmed the leak, which came from a pipe between two buildings. Since then, it has been pumping groundwater, storing and processing the contaminated water, which contains levels of tritium below federal limits.

“Ongoing monitoring of over two dozen onsite monitoring wells confirms that the spilled water is fully contained on site and was not detected outside the facility or in any local drinking water,” Xcel Energy’s statement said.

When asked why Xcel Energy had not informed the public earlier, the company said, “We understand the importance of promptly informing the communities we serve when a situation poses an imminent threat to health and safety. In this case, there was no such threat.” The company said it is focused on studying the situation, stemming the affected waters and finding out next steps.

The Monticello facility is located approximately 35 miles northwest of Minneapolis, upstream of the city on the Mississippi River.

Xcel Energy is considering constructing above-ground storage tanks to store the contaminated water it reclaims and is considering options for treating, reusing or ultimately disposing of the collected tritium and water. State regulators will review options the company selects, the MPCA said.

Japan is preparing to discharge into the sea a huge amount of treated radioactive waste water from the triple reactor meltdown 12 years ago at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The water contains tritium and other radioactive pollutants.

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