VERNON – The Intex “Easy Set” swimming pool retails for anywhere from $35 to $500 depending on its dimensions, and it’s billed as one of “the easiest family and friend-sized pools to set up in the world.”
But in Vernon, the Easy Set is serving a much different purpose than the one advertised on the manufacturer’s colorful website: It’s being used to help manage a complex groundwater-intrusion problem at Vermont Yankee.
Photos submitted to VTDigger show several blue pools marked with yellow radioactive warnings due to the full load of contaminated water inside. Pumps and hoses are connected to the pools in some images; others show large “bladders” apparently filled with water nearby.
While the setup may appear haphazard, Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Neil Sheehan expressed confidence that the liquid – which he said contains “very low levels of tritium” – is being handled safely while plant owner Entergy develops a longer-term plan for managing radioactive water at the Vernon plant.
“The pools are located in the lower level of the turbine building and placed such that any leakage would drain into the plant’s radioactive waste treatment system,” Sheehan said. “Also, the company has moved to using more robust bladders to hold the water. The pools filled with this low-level (radioactivity) do not pose a threat to public health because of its location inside the secured building.”
Entergy Vermont Yankee spokesman Marty Cohn echoed that, saying “there is no health or safety impact to the public or employees from this issue.” The swimming pools are a temporary measure, he added.
“The integrity of the pools was found to be adequate and the water found to be acceptable for those types of pools,” Cohn said. “Drains near these pools lead to sump pumps, which in turn lead to a waste-processing system.”
Vermont Yankee stopped power production in December 2014, and the NRC last year removed its resident inspector from the site. But the federal agency has continued periodic inspections, and the groundwater issue first surfaced in the NRC’s fourth-quarter report released in January.
That document says that “radioactive water inventories were increasing due mainly to the intrusion of groundwater.” Officials wrote that Entergy had been considering options both to stem the flow of groundwater and to eventually dispose of it.
After the inspection report was released, Sheehan said the problem is occurring on the lowest level of the plant’s turbine building. Groundwater intrusion has been averaging a few hundred gallons daily, Sheehan said, but there had been “occasional spikes” that on one day rose to 1,500 gallons.
Entergy has a water-management plan and has been pumping and storing groundwater, which is considered contaminated due to its contact with the building. In early February, a total of 90,000 gallons had been collected.
Groundwater intrusion was anticipated and in some ways is a symptom of the plant’s shutdown, since heat from power generation previously had caused some of the liquid to evaporate. But officials said they had not expected so much water to arrive so quickly.
Entergy, according the the NRC, has taken steps including hiring a contractor to seal cracks and drilling “interceptor wells” to capture and pump out the water.
But photos from inside the building submitted this week to VTDigger show additional methods for storing the collected liquid.
Sheehan said the large bladders are standard procedure for storing contaminated water. “The bladders – these heavy, rubberized-material containers – are used at many plants,” he said. “So that’s an acceptable storage method.”
The pools, on the other hand, are meant as a short-term stopgap while Entergy attempts to address the issue, Sheehan said. “The water in the pools has very low levels of tritium, not much above the (federal) limit for drinking water – though, of course, this water is not being used for drinking-water purposes,” Sheehan said.
Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen. Officials said the federal limit for safe drinking water is 20,000 picocuries of tritium per liter. To explain the radioactivity of Vermont Yankee’s stored groundwater, Sheehan used millirems – a measurement for radiation doses.
“To put that into perspective, anyone drinking water at the (federal) level would experience about 4 millirems of radiation exposure,” Sheehan said. “The average American is exposed to about 610 millirems of radiation each year from natural and manmade sources.”
Officials maintain that the Yankee water is being contained and “does not pose any threat to public health and safety.” In addition to environmental controls, security is tight: Tall fences and armed security forces still guard the plant’s vital infrastructure inside what’s known as the protected area, and any visitors are pre-screened and constantly escorted.
The submitted photos also show several types of signs bearing contamination warnings in the water-containment area. “As for plant workers, they are trained in dealing with such material, including approaches to limiting exposure, and the areas must be properly marked,” Sheehan said.
Regardless of any short-term storage solutions, Entergy must come up with a plan for getting radioactive water off the property eventually. And that plan stretches beyond the groundwater issue, as the NRC has said there are more than 1 million gallons of water at Vermont Yankee including liquid stored in a large, donut-shaped reservoir at the base of the reactor building.
Entergy has requested NRC approval to ship about 200,000 gallons of radioactive water to Idaho for disposal. There also has been preliminary talk of possible discharges into the Connecticut River, though any such plan would come under intense scrutiny by state regulators.
Sheehan said Thursday that the NRC is still “awaiting additional information from Entergy on its broader plans for addressing radioactive water at the site.”
Groundwater contamination at Vermont Yankee also is monitored by the Vermont Department of Health. Bill Irwin, the department’s radiological and toxicological sciences chief, said he has requested a meeting with Entergy administrators regarding the groundwater-intrusion issue.
But Irwin added that the state does not have jurisdiction in this matter. “The management of water within the plant is an Entergy VY and NRC issue,” Irwin said. “The Health Department’s particular interest is, though, when water from the plant moves from inside the structures, systems and components into the environment for potential impacts on the public.”