Business & Economy

Officials say tritium likely from “buried” pipe carrying radioactive waste

William Irwin, radiological health chief for the Vermont Department of Health

Low levels of the radioactive isotope tritium have been found in two monitoring wells on the Vermont Yankee compound over the last two weeks.

Though the source of the contaminated water has not yet been identified, officials say it could be coming from a new leak, possibly from pipes buried in soil near the radioactive waste treatment building, where radioactive fluids are treated and stored. As part of the new probe, an Entergy hydrogeologist will be sharing data with experts from New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Feb. 10.

The two monitoring wells that have tested positive for very low concentrations of tritium (between 1,000 and 9,000 picocuries per liter, well below the EPA standard of 20,000 pc/L) are located 200 feet and 100 feet, respectively, from tritium contamination that was discovered at the nuclear power plant a little more than a year ago.

Read the latest report from the Vermont Department of Health.

At no point, officials say, has public health been at risk as a result of the leaks.

Larry Smith, spokesman for Vermont Yankee said, a new source of tritium is “not unexpected.”
“We don’t understand why we’re seeing it,” Smith said. “We’re not saying a leak, we don’t know that, we’re investigating it.”

Since last January, Entergy Corp., based in Louisiana, has excavated tons of soil. It also continues to remove tritiated water (now up to 316,000 gallons) from the contamination plume that flows from the plant, which is on the west bank of the Connecticut River. The river, which separates Vermont from New Hampshire, flows south to Massachusetts.

The source of the original leak was an underground piping tunnel system connected to the Advanced Off-Gas (AOG) Building. Last year, readings from monitoring wells in the plume area were in the millions of picocuries.

All of this is taking far too long; the attorney general has had this information for almost a year, and there has been more than one leak. Both Entergy’s and the state’s responses have been too little and too late.”

~ Sandra Levine
CLF attorney

The origin of the new leak has yet to be determined, but several officials say it’s likely coming from buried pipes that carry radioactive waste.

Bill Irwin, radiological chief for the Vermont Department of Health, says there are three possible sources for the new tritium findings in the two monitoring wells. The water from the plume, which he said is flowing south and east toward the river, could be moving north toward test wells GZ6 and GZ24S, along a pipe way; or the hydrology of the site could be forcing the water west and north. Both those scenarios seem unlikely, in his view.

“Something (could be) acting as a conduit or a channel where (tritiated water) might move up against an obstacle because it can’t travel east to west,” Irwin said.

Irwin described GZ24S as a “sentinel well,” one that Entergy uses to identify a leak in “one or more buried piping lines” coming from the radioactive waste building.

“There’s more evidence … of the possibility of other pipes that contain radioactive fluids that run near GZ24S and somewhat near GZ6 that may be the leaking underground pipes everyone has expressed concern about,” Irwin said.

Until this latest sample, Irwin said, all attention was focused on the plume. Now, he said, the state is looking at this second set of sources.

“That’s in fact why GZ24S was sited where it is,” Irwin said. “It’s a sentinel well. It’s next to some drain lines carrying radioactive liquids. A sentinel well will be the means by which Entergy identifies a leak in one or more of those buried piping lines.”

Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, agrees with this assessment. He said the initial evidence indicates the tritium is not coming from the plume. The outline of the contamination area has been carefully drawn based on “dozens and dozens” of tests performed by Entergy, Sheehan said.

“The fact that those wells between plume and GZ24 and GZ6 have not indicated contamination supports the theory this is not coming from the pre-existing (plume),” Sheehan said.

Entergy can’t excavate soils now because of winter conditions. Sheehan said until Entergy figures out the source of the leak, the NRC is getting daily updates and is participating in a weekly conference call with company officials.

Irwin said the company is using air pressure to test the integrity of the pipes. It’s also possible Entergy will inject dye into the system, he said, “and wait for it to show up in the groundwater well.”

The new area in question includes a paved area that is used for moving spent fuel into dry cask storage, according to Irwin. “They have plans for another dry cask campaign this year,” Irwin said. “They would need to have any excavation completed before they did any of that.”

Buried pipe debate

Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell

In the past, concern has centered on whether the “buried” pipes “existed at all,” Irwin said, and if they were “evaluated for leakage.”

Entergy Corp. officials originally told the Public Service Board under oath that there were no “underground pipes” on the Vermont Yankee site.

Later, company officials told the state there were no “buried pipes” at the compound, instead they said all of the pipes were encased in tunnels. Since then, Entergy has acknowledged there are buried and underground pipes inside concrete chases. (As a result of “misleading” comments, 11 staff members of the corporation were “disciplined.”)

Entergy hired Morgan Lewis and Bockius LLP to evaluate its statements regarding Vermont Yankee. The law firm, according to a press release from the corporation that appeared on PR Newswire “did not find that any Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee employees intentionally misled the Vermont Public Service Board, the Department of Public Service, a Public Oversight Panel assessing the plant’s reliability as part of its application for renewal of its operating license, or a contracting firm working for the panel, Nuclear Safety Associates.”

A year ago, Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell began investigating whether there is any wrongdoing in connection with the information provided to the Public Service Board. In addition, Sorrell is examining whether Entergy has violated the state’s environmental law as a result of the leak. There is no word yet on the status of the probe.

Sandra Levine, a senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, said: “All of this is taking far too long; the attorney general has had this information for almost a year, and there has been more than one leak. Both Entergy’s and the state’s responses have been too little and too late.”

Levine said the fact that the underground pipes are inaccessible for repairs exacerbates the problem.

Hundreds of samples haven’t arrived

Vermont Yankee, photo from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Entergy is required to send split water testing samples to the Vermont Department of Health on a regular basis, but samples have not been forthcoming in many instances. The department’s lab verifies Entergy results to ensure accuracy.

“We fairly consistently have to remind them we need new samples,” Irwin said, adding that numerous letters, e-mails and phone calls from Health Department officials have, up until last week, been ignored. Right now there is a backlog of “hundreds of samples” that stretches as far back as September of 2010, Irwin said.

Vermont Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen wrote to Entergy on Friday insisting on access to daily analytical results —  whether they are from an onsite or offsite lab. Entergy agreed in a phone call to allow the tests to be released within 24 hours.

Entergy stopped producing onsite tests for a two week period in late December and early January because of an equipment failure.

The Construction Office Building drinking water well is in the center of the radioactive plume. The well hasn’t been in use since last year; its last test, in October, found tritium in the bedrock at 220 feet.

Entergy has told the state it will test that construction building well again this month.

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Anne Galloway

About Anne

Anne Galloway is the founder and editor of VTDigger and the executive director of the Vermont Journalism Trust. Galloway founded VTDigger in 2009 after she was laid off from her position as Sunday editor of the Rutland Herald and Times Argus. VTDigger has grown from a $16,000 a year nonprofit with no employees to a $2 million nonprofit daily news operation with a staff of 25. In 2017, Galloway was a finalist for the Ancil Payne Award for Ethics, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award and the Investigative Reporters and Editors FOIA Award for her investigation into allegations of foreign investor fraud at Jay Peak Resort.

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