A federal agency on Wednesday disputed the state’s suggestion that it did not press a nuclear power plant in Lacey Township to address a radiation spill last year.

The state Department of Environmental Protection invoked New Jersey’s Spill Act on Friday to oversee the cleanup of 180,000 gallons of irradiated water that leaked from the Oyster Creek Generating Station in April 2009.

The move marked the first time the state took the action against one of New Jersey’s four nuclear power plants, despite the fact that plants in Salem County have experienced more dangerous and more recent tritium leaks than the one at Oyster Creek. Typically, the law is invoked to force cleanups of pollution.

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In a statement announcing it was taking over the Oyster Creek cleanup Friday, the DEP seemed to criticize the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the agency that oversees nuclear power plants.

“Following notification of the 2009 Oyster Creek contamination, NRC performed an investigation but did not compel a cleanup,” the DEP said Friday.

Invoking the Spill Act allows the DEP to not only oversee the cleanup but also direct it.

DEP spokesman Lawrence Ragonese on Wednesday declined to elaborate on the statement. NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said the characterization was incorrect.

“It’s a little more complicated than that,” he said. “The main things were identifying the sources of the leakage, halting it and considering a remediation plan. The reality is, they are still working on the remediation plan.”

Sheehan said the plant’s owner, Exelon Corp., drilled 14 wells to examine the extent of the contamination. Once the scope of the plume was known, the company and the NRC planned to identify the best way to address it, he said.

The DEP stepped in when it learned radiation-tainted water had leached into the Cohansey Aquifer, a vast underground reservoir of drinking water serving more than 1 million residents in southern New Jersey.

“Once it affected our aquifer in New Jersey, we could not wait for Exelon or anyone else to come up with a plan. That’s why we interceded,” Ragonese said. “We will have a plan to deal with this leak. Exelon will have to follow the plan we provide.”

The shallow Cohansey Aquifer stretches from Monmouth to Cape May counties and contains an estimated 17 trillion gallons of water, the DEP says.

Tritium is a byproduct of nuclear fission and is created in water that passes through the reactor core and spent-fuel pools. Plants normally store this water on site indefinitely and reuse it when necessary to cool fuel rods. The tritium leaked from pipes connecting two storage buildings.

Since the April 2009 spill, radiation found in some monitoring wells has dropped from more than 2 million picocuries per liter to less than 20,000, which is considered safe for drinking water, according to lab tests by the state Bureau of Nuclear Engineering. Other new wells drilled into the Cohansey Aquifer saw radiation levels rise during the past year before subsiding slightly. Some of these tested in March at more than 50 times the safe limits for drinking water.

The contaminated water is in a plume that is migrating 1 to 3 feet per day, the DEP said. At this rate, it will take 14 to 15 years to reach the nearest residential wells in Lacey Township. Meanwhile, tritium loses half of its radiation potency every 12.3 years. The exact size and migration of the plume has not been determined, but all of Lacey Township relies on public water drawn from much deeper wells beneath the Cohansey Aquifer.

“Commissioner (Bob) Martin did not want to look back and play the blame game here. He wanted to move forward and stop any potential harm to the public water supply in New Jersey,” Ragonese said.

Nationwide, tritium has leaked at 33 of 104 nuclear plants. Oyster Creek, the nation’s oldest operating nuclear plant, had two tritium leaks in 2009, one in April and another in August. “As far as the scale of time, it has not been all that long. It’s not surprising that at this point they have not settled on a remediation plan,” the NRC’s Sheehan said.

“We’re consulting with the DEP to understand their concerns. There was a high degree of attention paid to this,” he said. “Steps are being taken by Exelon. They’re not done yet. They still have more work to do.”

This could mean pumping the tainted water out of the ground and storing it in giant tanks for reuse in the reactor core, a solution used for a tritium spill at a plant in Vernon, Vt., Sheehan said. Or, it could mean leaving the tritium to decay in place, as the NRC allowed with a plant in West Chester, N.Y., he said.

“They determined they could do more harm than good by trying to pump the water out,” he said.

Sheehan said tritium spills often take years to clean up. For example, PSEG is still cleaning up a 2002 tritium leak from its spent-fuel storage tank at Salem 1 in Lower Alloways Creek Township.

The state is also monitoring the cleanup of tritium that leaked from Salem 2 in April of this year.

“Every situation is unique. The volume of contamination has been different for different sites,” Sheehan said.

Exelon has scheduled a public meeting 4 to 8 p.m. June 10 at its Oyster Creek education center, located off Route 9 on Intake View Lane in Forked River, to answer any questions about the spill.

Spokesman David Benson said none of the off-site wells has detected tritium, which is found in low levels in nature. He said the company has been studying both the spill and the hydrology of the aquifer to determine the best course of action.

“We’ve been aggressively dealing with it,” he said of the spill. “It’s not just a cliché to say for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Until you have your monitoring equipment in place, you don’t want to make things worse.

“Our goal all along has been to protect the water supply. We’ll continue working with the state and the NRC throughout this.”

The New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club applauded the state’s action to invoke the Spill Act and take control of the cleanup.

“We should get our X-rays from our doctors, not our tap water,” spokesman Jeff Tittel said. “I want the DEP to keep control so they hire independent experts and have better quality assurance.”

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