400,000 gallons of radioactive water leaked from nuclear plant before US officials notified neighbours

Residents living near a Minnesota nuclear power plant have questioned why public officials waited nearly four months to tell them about a massive leak of radioactive water from the facility.

Some 400,000 gallons of water containing tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, leaked from Xcel Energy’s Monticello nuclear power plant in late November, officials confirmed publicly for the first time on Thursday.

The Xcel Energy plant is located on the banks of the Mississippi River about 35 miles from Minneapolis. The closest neighbourhood is around a mile from the plant.

“It happened in November? It would have been nice to know since we live next to the power plant,” Daniel Fure, a Monticello resident, told local news station KSTP. “The public should know what’s going on. If we don’t’ know anything about it, we can’t say anything. We don’t know anything about it.”

Other residents took out their frustrations at being kept in the dark on the City of Monticello’s official Facebook page after it shared Xcel Energy’s press release on the incident.

“This is the first I’ve heard of this. I live very close to the plant. Wish they’d come check our wells,” wrote Sally Berthiaume.

“Should have been told about this issue back in November when it took place,” added Shari Sharp Oravetz.

The Independent reached out to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Minnesota Department of Health and Xcel Energy for comment.

The energy company said in a press release that the leaked water is fully contained on-site. It has not been detected beyond the facility or in any local drinking water, and poses no health and safety risk to the local community or the environment, the release added.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the state of Minnesota were notified by Xcel Energy on 22 November, the same day the presence of a leak was confirmed. The leak came from a water pipe running between two buildings. So far 25 per cent of the tritium released has been recovered.

The company said the water contains levels of tritium below NRC safety thresholds and that state agencies are monitoring Xcel Energy’s remediation work.

“We live and work in the community, too, and the safety of our hundreds of Monticello employees and the surrounding area is a top priority,” Theo Keith, an Xcel Energy representative, told The Independent in an email.

“We understand the importance of quickly informing the communities we serve if a situation poses an immediate threat to health and safety. In this case, there was no such threat.

“Now that we have thoroughly investigated the issue, contained the leak, and mapped out a path forward, we are at a place where we can share with the public not only what has already been done, but what we’re going to do next. This timing allows us to provide the most accurate and complete understanding of the situation.”

Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that occurs naturally in the environment and is a common by-product of nuclear plant operations.

It emits a weak form of beta radiation that does not travel very far and cannot penetrate human skin, according to the NRC. A person who drank water from a spill would get only a low dose, the NRC says.

State officials said they waited to get more information on the leak before going public with it.

“We knew there was a presence of tritium in one monitoring well, however Xcel had not yet identified the source of the leak and its location,” Minnesota Pollution Control Agency spokesman Michael Rafferty told The Associated Press.

“Now that we have all the information about where the leak occurred, how much was released into groundwater, and that contaminated groundwater had moved beyond the original location, we are sharing this information,” he added.

Mr Keith also told The Independent that no other leaks of contaminated water have occurred at the Monticello nuclear plant or the company’s other nuclear facility, Prairie Island, in the past 12 months.

“Many operating nuclear plants have had some level of tritium leakage at some point during their operations. In the late 2000s, Monticello experienced a tritium release smaller in scale than this one and we worked with state agencies to resolve it.

“That leak came from a sump, rather than a pipe as this most recent one did, and we took action to reline all of our sumps following that leak,” the statement added.

With reporting from The Associated Press