We have been reviewing and reporting on Mass. Dept. of Public Health’s (MassDPH) tritium testing results for Pilgrim Nuclear since 2012. Read our chronology of Pilgrim’s tritium leaks from Apr. 2013 to Aug. 2014 →

It’s been a while, but MassDPH has finally released its first tritium report for Pilgrim in 2015 (updated results as of May 12, 2015). The previous report was issued back in Nov. 2014. This new 2015 report outlines tritium results (and other contaminates) from groundwater, surface water, and soil sampling done on the Pilgrim site since October 2014.

Sampling results are reported by Entergy, as well as by the MERL lab (Massachusetts Environmental Radiation Laboratory) and the results are compared. Read about how Pilgrim’s groundwater testing began →

Groundwater Testing

Monitoring Well #206 indicates a range of tritium concentrations from below the laboratory “reporting levels” to above the reporting levels of 1,226 pCi/L (picocuries per liter). While levels of tritium have been higher in this well in the past, it continues to show intermittent peaks of tritium levels.

Monitoring wells #209 and #211 are down gradient from the Neutralization Sump Discharge Line separation area – a separation that was discovered in April 2013 and thought to be a source of tritium. Tritium concentrations for these wells ranged from 564 pCi/L to 1,721 pCi/L.

Another well down gradient of #211 also has similar concentrations of tritium (540 pCi/L and 1,280 pCi/L).

Tritium results for monitoring well #216 continue to be high. Results have fluctuated between 420 pCi/L and 6,127 pCi/L since October 13, 2014. MassDEP and Entergy are still investigating possible sources of these high tritium levels – and have been since at least August of 2013 when 4,882-5,307 pCi/L of tritium was detected.

Monitoring well #218, which is located in the vicinity of the Neutralization Sump Discharge Line separation area, shows “a recent uptick in concentrations.” Results ranged from 1,210 pCi/L to 4,010 pCi/L. MassDPH reported that these recent results appear to be trending with results of #216 and #206 – meaning a leak nearby these wells could exist.

New Monitoring Well Installation

Entergy installed a new monitoring well (#220) in Dec. 2014 to replace a decommissioned well (#203) and to help characterize groundwater flow in this area. Tritium results for this new well ranged from 435 pCi/L to 841 pCi/L.

Surface Water Sampling

Since elevated concentrations of tritium have been found near monitoring well #219, surface water samples have been taken down gradient of this location (well #205, which is in the intake area). While no detectable tritium levels have been found for the most part – there was one exception: 305 pCi/L in a sample collected in October 2014. This is just above the reporting level of 300 pCi/L. No reason for this tritium level appears to have been determined or was reported by MassDEP or Entergy.

Soil Samples

Soils were collected and analyzed for radionuclides in 2013, and then final results were reported in MassDPH’s May 2014 tritium report. High levels of tritium, manganese-54, cesium-137, and cobalt-60 were found at various depths near the separated neutralization sump discharge line area at that time. These were apparently “above typical background levels” in the soils near monitoring well #216.

MassDPH stated at that time that the findings warranted more investigation and soil sampling, as well as further characterization and/or remediation of the sources. Even then – after more than a year had passed since dangerous pollutants were found in the soil and water on the site, MassDPH continued to only require Entergy to do “more investigation. This latest, May 2015 tritium report outlines this continued investigation.

More soil samples were collected in December 2014 to characterize the nature and extent of radionuclide impact after Entergy rerouted the Neutralization Sump Discharge Line (where the separation was found in 2013 and thought to be a source of tritium and other contaminates).

These new soil samples were analyzed again for tritium and other radionuclides (i.e., cesium-137, cobalt-60, and manganese-54). Tritium was detected at levels from “non-detect” to 175 pCi/kg. Results also showed manganese-54 and cobalt-60 not detected above reporting levels. However, cesium-137 was detected at levels from “non-detect” to 2,400 pCi/kg.

Analyses for “hard-to-detect” radionuclides, such as iron-55, nickel-63, and strontium-90, were also performed for two of the soil samples (those showing the highest concentrations of cesium-137). These hard-to-detect radionuclides were not detected above reporting levels.

Investigations Ongoing…and Going and Going

So what is being done about the tritium and cesium found in the water and soil? Same as before – Entergy is working to evaluate, analyze, and develop options associated with these findings (aka, nothing).

MassDPH and Entergy keep stating that more investigations and sampling are warranted. More than two years have passed since toxic pollutants have been found in water and soil samples at Pilgrim – MassDPH and other regulators continue to only require more investigations by Entergy.

Read our chronology of Pilgrim’s tritium leaks from Apr. 2013 to Aug. 2014

FLEX Plan Wells

Part of Entergy’s Flexible Coping Strategies Integrated (FLEX) plan is to install 3 wells to serve as emergency sources of cooling water in the event of an unplanned offsite power loss (needed to cool the nuclear reactor and spent fuel pool). These wells were installed in 2014.

Entergy has collected water samples from these wells and analyzed them for tritium. While Entergy’s samples contained no concentrations above reporting levels, the state’s MERL lab showed three samples slightly above reporting levels (ranging from 304 to 388 pCi/L).

These tritium samples provide evidence of tritium present even in the deep groundwater at Pilgrim. Moving forward, Entergy will test and report on samples from these wells annually, and also provide the MERL lab samples for testing.

Tritium: What’s Safe?

Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen produced during routine nuclear operations. Tritium is a carcinogen and a significant hazard when inhaled, ingested via food or water, or absorbed through the skin.

The National Academies of Science developed a report in 2005 called “Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation,” which found that there is no safe level of exposure to radiation; even low doses can cause cancer. To address this, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set a Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) for all radionuclides (including tritium) as ZERO. EPA defines MCLG as the “level of a contaminant in drinking water below which there is no known or expected risk to health.”

Despite their contaminant goal of zero, EPA permits doses of tritium to the general public of up to 15 millirem per year, and they have also set a maximum threshold for “safe” drinking water at 20,000 picocuries per liter. The permissible limits for tritium are much lower in some U.S. states and Canadian provinces. For example, California’s recommended goal is 400 picocuries per liter, Colorado’s limit for surface water is 500 picocuries per liter, and Ontario’s recommended limit is 540 picocuries per liter.

What About Age?

As always, nowhere in MassDPH’s newest report is age-related degradation considered or discussed. Pilgrim has outlived it life-span and leaks will only increase at parts of the facility continue to degrade. Extreme temperatures, salt water and air, corrosive chemicals, and intense radiation have caused components to thin and crack, compromising the structural integrity of the facility.

State and federal agencies responsible for regulating Pilgrim have not indicated that Entergy will suffer any consequences whatsoever for the groundwater and soil pollution related to the leaks that have been occurring for years. If these leaks cannot be stopped after more than two years, Pilgrim should be shut down, declared a Superfund site, and cleaned up as soon as possible.

Read the latest MassDPH May 2015 report →