Officials Probe Spills at Illinois Nuclear Power Plant

Federal, state, and local officials are investigating a previously unreported radioactive waste water spill near Godley, Ill., where the company Exelon owns and operates a nuclear power plant. Now, the company says two more of its plants in Illinois leaked radioactive waste.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Here are two stories of environmental safety in two parts of the world. In a moment we'll learn about an aircraft carrier full of asbestos that's still looking for a final destination. First, a radioactive waste water spill outside of Chicago that went unreported.

MONTAGNE: It happened near Godley, Illinois, where the company Exelon owns and operates a nuclear power plant. Federal, state and local officials are investigating the spill. Now the company says two more of its plants in Illinois leaked radioactive waste. NPR's David Schaper reports on local residents looking for answers.

DAVID SCHAPER reporting:

To Joe Cosgrove(ph), this is simply a story about small town neighbors.

Mr. JOE COSGROVE (Resident, Illinois): In the country we believe neighbors don't hurt neighbors. When neighbors do something, they tell you.

SCHAPER: Cosgrove is parks director in Godley, a tiny town of about 600 people, which sits in the shadows of the neighbor, Exelon's Braidwood Nuclear Power Plant. In the past few weeks, Cosgrove and others have come to find out that radioactive tritium leaked from a pipeline leading off the plant grounds not just once in 2000, as the community had initially been told, but at least three other times as well, dating back to 1996.

And now residents have discovered that tritium levels in some groundwater supplies near where the spills occurred are above what the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe. Tritium is a low level radioactive substance, considered one of the least dangerous by the EPA. State and federal regulators say that tritium leaks pose no threat to public health and safety. But such assurances don't calm Cosgrove's fears.

Mr. COSGROVE: It's radioactive, and we feel it's Russian roulette. They've had two bullets in that chamber, and maybe we were lucky. But what about the next time? That's our concern.

Good evening. We would like to try to get underway.

SCHAPER: So Cosgrove and other concerned residents opened up Godley Park's gymnasium for a recent community forum on the nuclear plant's leaks. More than 300 worried residents turned out to try to get answers, not from Exelon, the company wasn't invited, but from the federal and state agencies charged with overseeing the nuclear power plant.

Mr. BILL BUSHER (Illinois Environmental Protection Agency): With respect to the question of this public forum, is our water safe?

SCHAPER: Bill Busher of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency tackled the residents' worries head on.

Mr. BUSHER: At this point and time, from the data I have today, my answer to that question is, your water is safe.

SCHAPER: Busher and representatives from the Federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission say independent tests of residential water wells show tritium levels far below the federal limit. But the regulators also acknowledge that they too were not notified by Exelon about all of the radiation leaks when they should have been.

That outraged residents who questioned why regulators rely on nuclear power companies to self-report safety problems in the first place. One resident shouted that the agencies that are supposed to be watchdogs are nothing more than lap dogs. Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokeswoman Victoria Mittling(ph) says the NRC has a full-time inspector onsite at every nuclear power plant in the country. But she says the agency simply doesn't have the resources to observe everything that might go wrong at a plant.

Ms. VICTORIA MITTLING (Spokeswoman, Nuclear Regulatory Commission): We do rely on the licensee to provide us with true and correct information. And if they do not, there are consequences that they suffer.

SCHAPER: Mittling says those consequences can include hefty fines. She adds that the NRC is investigating what it knew about the tritium leaks and when, looking at not just Exelon, but at itself to see if the agency acted as it should. Exelon officials admit they have not handled the tritium spills well. Exelon spokesman Craig Nesbitt.

Mr. CRAIG NESBITT (Spokesman, Exelon): It's not a good situation. We're not happy about it. We're not happy that we're dealing with this eight years later. And we're going to fix it. And even more importantly, we're going to make sure it never happens again.

SCHAPER: Nesbitt says Exelon is fully cooperating with regulators and investigators. The company is also now checking for possible tritium leaks at all 10 of its nuclear power plants across the country, six of them in Illinois, three in Pennsylvania, and one in New Jersey.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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