February 10, 2006
Will County Vows Investigation of Radioactive Spills
By Hal Dardick
Tribune staff reporter
Will County State's Atty. James Glasgow has launched an "aggressive" investigation of radioactive tritium spills at a nuclear power station at the county's southwest tip, he said Thursday.
His office is collecting scientific data on the contamination and plans to meet with the Illinois attorney general's office, which has expertise in enforcing the state Environmental Protection Act, Glasgow said.
Assistant State's Atty. Phil Mock of the civil division disclosed the probe at a meeting of a County Board committee as it discussed four tritium spills between 1996 and 2003. The spills contaminated groundwater in the area and were not disclosed publicly until recent weeks.
The committee recommended authorizing the county Health Department to put together a groundwater-testing plan for the area surrounding the plant, which is in Reed Township.
Committee members also discussed helping the area build a water-delivery system that would eliminate the need for shallow wells used by residents.
"The long-term solution is, we need to find a source of safe, affordable drinking water for the people in the area," said County Board Chairman James Moustis (R-Frankfort).
County Board Executive Larry Walsh, a Democrat, added: "The magnitude of what we are looking at is going to be huge, but it's something that needs to be looked at, and it's a problem we can handle, I believe."
At the meeting an executive for Exelon Nuclear, the Exelon Corp. business unit that runs Braidwood Generating Station, again apologized for the way his company dealt with the spills.
"We did not handle this well," said Thomas O'Neill, vice president of regulatory affairs. "We need to do a better job of communicating to you all."
By working with governments and residents to provide information and mitigate contamination, Exelon aims "to try to earn back the trust we have lost in this instance," he said.
In recent weeks the company has disclosed four spills of tritium, a byproduct of nuclear generation that can enter the body through ingestion, absorption and inhalation.
Exposure can increase the risk of cancer, birth defects and genetic damage, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers it one of the least dangerous radioactive substances, in part because it leaves the body relatively quickly.
The first spill, of about 250,000 gallons of effluent containing tritium, happened in 1996, O'Neill said. In each of the next two spills, in 1998 and 2000, about 3 million gallons of effluent containing tritium was spilled. As a result, groundwater east of the plant recently was found to have a tritium level nearly 11 times higher than the federal limit. A 2003 spill left groundwater at the Braidwood Dunes and Savanna Nature Preserve, east of the plant, with a recent tritium level about 50 percent higher than the federal limit.
All four spills resulted from malfunctioning vacuum breakers along the 5 mile-long line that carries effluent with tritium to the Kankakee River, where it is dumped at levels below federal limits, Exelon officials said.
O'Neill said a clay layer in the earth prevents tritium from going into a deep aquifer. In recent weeks Exelon announced that only one private well of the 34 it has tested in the area had above-normal tritium readings, and those readings were well below the federal limit.
But residents and anti-nuclear activists have expressed concern about the effects of chronic tritium exposure, even at levels deemed acceptable by the EPA that Illinois adopted.
Mock said the level deemed safe by the EPA "is not based on any medical standards that I know of."
He said some states that have no nuclear plants set the acceptable limit at levels 40 times lower than the EPA.