A Minnesota utility began shutting down a nuclear power plant near Minneapolis on Friday after failing to stop the release of radioactive material it says is not dangerous but has prompted concerns among nearby residents.
Xcel Energy started shutting down the plant in Monticello, and after it cools over the next few days, workers will cut out a pipe that is over 50 years old and had been leaking tritium, said Chris Clark, the utility's president. The utility will then have the pipe analyzed in hopes of preventing similar leaks in the future, he said.
“We could have continued to safely operate the plant and simply repair the catchment, but then, of course, there is always a risk that it would spill over again and have more tritium enter the groundwater," Clark said during a news conference near the Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant, about 35 miles (56 kilometers) northwest of Minneapolis. “We didn't want to take that chance, so we're bringing the plant down.”
Clark said the tritium isn't a risk to the drinking water of Monticello or the nearby city of Becker. He said Monticello takes its water from the Mississippi River above the plant, and Becker's intake is across the river. Even if the tritium reached the river, which Clark assured wouldn't happen, it would dissipate within a few yards, he said.
Clark said the spill had not left the utility’s property.
Xcel discovered in November that about 400,000 gallons (1.5 million liters) of water containing tritium had leaked. The utility made a temporary fix but learned this week that hundreds more gallons of tritium-laced water had leaked, leading to the shutdown decision.
The utility reported the leak to state and federal authorities in late November but didn't make the spill widely public until last week, raising questions about transparency and public health issues. State officials said they wanted to wait for more details before sharing information widely.
Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that occurs naturally and is a common byproduct of nuclear plant operations. It emits a weak form of beta radiation that does not travel far and cannot penetrate human skin, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Cindy Remick, of Becker, attended an information session about the leak Friday and said she still has concerns that nearby residents, especially those who rely on well water, will be safe. Remick also worries about whether the radioactive material could hurt wildlife along the Mississippi River.
“We have a very large population here of eagles, and I would like to make sure they're not impacted,” Remick said. “Minnesota is known for our wildlife, and if that (tritium) escapes their plant into the Mississippi, that could be very damaging.”
Tyler Abayare, who was fishing at the Mississippi River not far from the plant Friday, said he’s been coming to the river every day for five years and he usually sees about 15 to 20 others fishing as well.
“Typically this time of year, there’s a lot of families that come out and fish with their children," he said. "Now, after the media released what happened, there’s not a soul in sight, and it just takes away from the recreation and passion of fishing.”
He said he doesn’t believe that tritiated water hasn’t made it to the Mississippi River. He doesn’t eat the fish he catches and said he no longer ties his line with his teeth but makes sure to only use his hands so he doesn’t get sick.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspectors are monitoring the shutdown and repairs, said Victoria Mitlyng, a spokesperson for the agency.
“It is important to note that while NRC inspectors are closely monitoring the plant’s actions to address the leak per requirements, this leak does not present a safety challenge to the public, to drinking water supplies, the plant or the environment,” Mitlyng said in a statement. “The leak did not exceed any NRC limits and the company is meeting NRC requirements.”
Clark acknowledged some local officials and residents were unhappy the utility didn't immediately report the spill to the public, although the utility made required notifications to state and federal authorities. He said the call for more transparency was one reason he was holding a news conference and inviting residents to the information session.
Although there is a cost to shutting down the plant, Clark said electricity demand is lower at this time of the year and that other power plants can meet customer demand. The utility already had planned to shut down the plant April 15 for nearly a month for refueling, and Clark said it wasn't clear if it would immediately reopen after the leak is fixed.
Clark said the pipe that leaked is part of the original plant, which opened in 1971. Xcel has applied to extend its operating license at Monticello through 2050.
“We have invested hundreds of millions of dollars as we have run Monticello over those 50 years, and so as we ask the NRC for permission to add additional years to the plant's operation, we want to inventory the age of everything in the plant and be sure we're dealing with whatever we need to update.”
Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the fact there was a second tritium leak at the Monticello site “shines a light on the problem of maintaining aging pipelines” underground at older nuclear plants such as Monticello.
“It’s bad timing for them” to have multiple tritium leaks as they are seeking a license renewal, Lyman said.
The temporary plant closure could be out an abundance of caution, “or it could be sign they don’t know how bad the problem is, and they need to do a deep dive to find out what’s going on,’’ he said.
Tim Judson, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a group that opposes nuclear power, said the second leak at the plant “is obviously concerning,’’ adding that if tritium gets into groundwater, it can spread rapidly.
Judson and Lyman both said public concerns about the possible health risks of the tritium leak are exacerbated by the recent toxic train derailment in Ohio. East Palestine residents remain concerned about possible health effects despite pledges by government officials that air and water near the train derailment and explosion are safe.
“People are seeing what happened in Ohio, and they are distrustful of the government response,’’ Judson said.