Leak at Oyster Creek Nuclear Power Plant

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) Commissioner Bob Martin recently announced the launch of a new and thorough state investigation into the 2009 leak of radioactive tritium into the aquifers below the Oyster Creek Nuclear Power Plant located in Lacey Township, New Jersey, with a goal of ensuring the pollutant does not endanger the environment or public health and safety. Commissioner Martin is worried about the continuing spread of the tritium into the groundwater and its gradual movement towards drinking water wells in the area.

The NJDEP is charged with identifying the risk and determine how to deal with the problem. Toward that goal, the NJDEP issued a Spill Act directive to the Exelon Corporation, requiring the plant owner to cooperate with the NJDEP’s investigation and take action to prevent the radioactive substance from reaching the region’s drinking water supplies.

It is believed at least 180,000 gallons of contaminated water was released from the plant on April 9, 2009, through two small holes in separate pipes. There is evidence that contamination 50 times higher than NJDEP standards has now reached the Cohansey aquifer, a significant drinking water resource for much of South Jersey.

To date, there is no evidence of an immediate threat to private or public drinking water supplies. The underground flow of the tritium-laced water moves at a rate of about one-to three-feet a day, and would not reach the closest drinking water well for several years.

NJDEP is taking the following steps to ensure no human health or environmental resources are impacted in the future:

  • Issuing a Spill Act directive to force action by Exelon. Failure to comply allows NJDEP to perform these actions at Exelon’s expense and exposes Exelon to treble damages.
  • Initiating a new investigation and mandating Exelon to install necessary monitoring wells.
  • Requiring that Exelon provide split sampling to confirm analytical results.
  • Requiring Exelon to contain or treat the contamination plume to ensure there is no risk to the environment or the public in the future.

Total Environmental & Safety recommends that all home owners and commercial business in the area of Oyster Creek Nuclear Power Plant that rely on well water for their drinking water have the water tested periodically.

Tritium occurs as a by-product of nuclear power plant operations. Nuclear power plants are regulated by the federal government’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), thus the state’s ability to compel mandatory clean-up is limited. Following notification of the 2009 Oyster Creek contamination, NRC performed an investigation but did not compel a cleanup.
New Jersey has an existing memorandum of understanding with the NRC that gives the NJDEP a very active role in oversight. The NJDEP, as a result, already has obtained some concessions from Exelon:

  • Official notification of the spill was made.
  • Additional monitoring wells were installed to help identify the extent of contamination.
  • Exelon has continued to provide samples to the NJDEP to confirm analytical results with an independent laboratory and has made those results public.
  • Exelon committed to move all pipes containing radioactively contaminated water either above ground or into concrete vaults to avoid similar leaks by the end of 2010.

Although Exelon has been working with the NJDEP on the issue, the state does not believe the actions to date have been timely or extensive enough to have adequately protected the water supply.

Tritium leaks are not uncommon at nuclear power plants nationwide. A similar situation with a tritium leak in New Jersey exists at both Salem Nuclear Power Plants on Artificial Island. But that owner, PSE&G, has worked more closely with the NJDEP to ensure there is no unmonitored release of tritium.