Leaky US Power Plants Highlight Need for More Radiation-Testing Laboratories

By Nancy Maddox, Writer

Tritium—a radioactive isotope of hydrogen—has leaked from at least 48 of 65 US nuclear power plants, according to a yearlong Associated Press investigation. The AP safety review found that radioactive contaminants have sometimes reached groundwater and surface water and even residential drinking wells.

One of those leaky facilities is Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in Vernon, Vermont. The Vermont Department of Health Laboratory (VDHL) detected an elevated tritium level in a monitoring well in January 2010, at about the same time the leak was reported by Vermont Yankee’s own monitoring program.

Since then, the VDHL has received more than 2,400 environmental samples to test from the power plant vicinity. The laboratory is testing for tritium and gamma radiation in drinking water, groundwater and river water samples. It also is doing hundreds of analyses on milk, air, vegetation soil and river sediment samples to determine if there is any radioactive contamination present.

According to the latest Vermont Department of Health update, eight out of 31 groundwater monitoring wells have tested positive for tritium, but the levels of contamination have been generally declining.

Japan’s Fukushima power plant emergency—triggered by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami earlier this year—has raised public awareness and concerns about nuclear power plant safety. Unfortunately, the VDHL is one of only about 30 public laboratories in the US capable of monitoring radiation in human, animal, food or environmental samples.

George Mills, Chief of the VDHL’s Inorganic Chemistry section, said, “There are a relatively small number of laboratories that test for environmental radiation in the US, and I think they were taxed by the Japan releases. Ours was even here in Vermont. But even more concerning, there are even fewer labs that are ready to test clinical samples. There is a large gap between actual radiological testing capacity and capability and public expectations should an event occur in our country. There is also a shortage of laboratory scientists trained in radiochemistry.”

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