Ocean Township Mayor Joseph Lachawiec says the Oyster Creek nuclear plant’s plan to clean up water that leaked underground in 2009 amounts to dumping radioactive material into his township, which adjoins Oyster Creek.
Exelon Corp., the owner of the Lacey Township plant, announced Oct. 21 it will clean up the spill by pumping contaminated water out of the ground, mixing it with water used to cool the reactor, and pumping the diluted result into a discharge canal leading to Oyster Creek.
The radioactive water will be diluted to the point where it is considered safe for drinking by federal standards and poses no health or safety risks, both Exelon and the state Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP, say.
“What happens if someone wades into the creek and claims to get testicular cancer caused by tritium? You’re going to get lawyers and scientists who say the equipment was faulty or not sensitive enough,” Lachawiec said.
“They say they have a monitoring device at the mouth of the Oyster Creek? Where is it? What does it detect? What’s the specific gravity of tritium? Does it float? Sink?” he said. “We want details and more specifics.”
Lachawiec sent a letter to DEP Assistant Commissioner Irene Kropp on Oct. 21 asking for a public hearing on the cleanup plan.
“The township’s residents are rightfully upset and angered by the fact that there was no public discussion or disclosure of this remediation plan and no notice provided to the municipality until literally the 11th hour,” Lachawiec wrote.
Oyster Creek discovered on April 15, 2009, that about 180,000 gallons of tritium-contaminated water had leaked from the plant and seeped into the Cohansey aquifer, a source of drinking water for more than 1 million New Jersey residents.
Exelon spokesman David Benson noted that tritium occurs naturally and is found in trace amounts in rainfall. He said the method of cleanup has been approved by the DEP.
“It’s diluted to less than (radioactive) background levels by the time it enters the discharge canal,” he said. “It’s indiscernible from background sources. It does not pose a threat to public health or safety.”
Benson said an array of sensors around the plant would indicate whether any unsafe levels of radiation ever entered the discharge canal.
“We would know immediately if there was ever radiation released from the site. That just hasn’t happened,” he said.
Tritium, an isotope of hydrogen, is a byproduct of nuclear fission. Tritium leaks have been an ongoing problem at Oyster Creek — America’s oldest operating nuclear plant — and dozens of others, including PSEG Nuclear’s two Salem plants in Lower Alloways Creek Township.
The plume of contamination at Oyster Creek has not migrated off the plant’s property and poses no immediate threat to any drinking water, the DEP said.
The state in May took the extraordinary step of invoking the Spill Act to assume supervision of the tritium cleanup.
The company last week began to pump 25 to 50 gallons per minute out of the ground into a 1,600-gallon holding tank. From there the water will be mixed with 115,000 to 460,000 gallons of cooling water drawn each minute from an Oyster Creek intake canal.
The diluted result will circulate through the cooling system before being discharged back into the canal.
Exelon shut down the reactor Monday for routine maintenance while it replaces fuel rods in the core. The scheduled shutdown gives the company a chance to do work that can’t be performed while the reactor is operating, such as replacing two main transformers.
Exelon will use the down time to place pipes carrying tritium-contaminated water into concrete vaults to prevent future leaks. The company is spending $13.3 million on the project.
About 1,400 contractors will work on about 9,500 tasks at the plant during the shutdown. For market competition reasons, the company will not say how long the outage will last.
Since the 2009 spill, Exelon has hosted numerous public meetings, including at least one well-attended open house, to answer questions about tritium.
State officials met with Lachawiec on Friday to talk about his concerns. The DEP has made every effort to be transparent about the cleanup and will continue to do so, spokesman Larry Ragonese said.
“Commissioner (Bob) Martin has tried to be out front and public on the issue. Anything that’s occurred, we have made public,” he said.
Ragonese said the tritium cleanup poses no health or safety risks to anyone who swims, boats or fishes in Oyster Creek or the surrounding Barnegat Bay.
We’ll be able to ensure it is diluted to the point of being untraceable,” he said. “We’re watching what happens carefully. If different action needs to occur, Commissioner Martin would require Exelon to take other steps.”
Lachawiec said he is a proponent of nuclear energy and even encourages Exelon to build a new reactor in his township. But he said he is skeptical about the health and safety assurances the company has made about the diluted tritium.
“Forty years ago they said agent orange was safe,” said Lachawiec, a U.S. Army veteran who served in the Vietnam War. “That’s the same thing they’re saying now. A little bit won’t hurt you.”
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