Critics press for more testing at Pilgrim plant

Pilgrim already has six monitoring wells and plans to add six more, a spokesman said. Pilgrim already has six monitoring wells and plans to add six more, a spokesman said. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2006)
By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / January 31, 2010

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Following the discovery of large quantities of radioactive liquid in the ground water around a nuclear power plant in Vermont, Duxbury critics of a similar plant in Plymouth have launched a campaign to press for a stronger testing program for radioactive leaks there.

Pointing to the Pilgrim nuclear power plant’s shoreline location, the critics say radioactive leaks from underground pipes would pollute Duxbury Bay and imperil aquaculture businesses along the Duxbury shore.

Monitoring wells in the Vermont Yankee plant detected tritium earlier this month in amounts that exceeded federal standards for drinking water. Exposure to high levels of tritium, a radioactive isotope that is a byproduct of creating nuclear power, can increase the risk of developing cancer.

Scientists from the Nuclear Regulatory Commis sion, the federal agency that oversees nuclear plants, are now reviewing the Vermont plant’s methods for monitoring ground-water contamination.

While many Plymouth residents have expressed concern over safety issues at the plant following Pilgrim’s request for a license renewal four years ago, and the Plymouth Nuclear Matters Committee is “very much’’ concerned about potential leaks, said its chairman, Jeff Berger, the town of Plymouth has taken no official stance.

In neighboring Duxbury, however, some officials say they are worried buried pipes and tanks at the plant are vulnerable to the same leaks as found at Vermont Yankee, and they are pushing their Town Meeting and the state to demand a stricter monitoring program. A resolution backed by Duxbury’s Nuclear Advisory Committee and the town’s emergency management director contends Pilgrim’s program “does not meet reasonable standards for monitoring network design.’’

Pilgrim, which like Vermont Yankee is owned by Entergy, instituted a testing program two years ago with four monitoring wells and recently added two more wells. The plant has tested ground-water samples four times a year and discovered traces of tritium in quantities well within federal safety standards. But critics say the monitoring is not adequate. Vermont Yankee, for example, has 32 wells.

“Your local gas station has four wells,’’ said Mary Lampert, president of the Duxbury-based watchdog group Pilgrim Watch. “If you don’t look’’ for tritium, “you’re not going to find it.’’

The Duxbury Town Meeting resolution calls for more wells, regular testing for other telltale radioactive substances in addition to tritium, a ground-water study to find the best locations for monitoring wells, and public reporting of test results.

Duxbury emergency management director Kevin Nord has also written to the state Department of Public Health to enlist its help in pressing for a more rigorous testing program at Pilgrim. Backing the resolution, he told Duxbury selectmen that he’s concerned about potential runoff from Pilgrim into the bay.

Pilgrim spokesman David Tarantino, however, defended the plant’s monitoring program.

“It’s a serious concern,’’ Tarantino said of radioactive leaks found in nuclear power plants throughout the country. “We have six wells, and we’re in the process of adding six more. In a way, we’re doing what they want.’’

The plant splits its ground-water samples with the state health department, which also tests them and provides a check on results, Tarantino said. Testing done so far has established a base line that would help detect a possible future problem.

Tarantino said tritium is a naturally occurring byproduct of nuclear power production and may be released in the form of water vapor, accounting for the minute quantities of tritium in Pilgrim’s wells. If a leak existed in the plant’s system of underground pipes and tanks, it would show up in larger amounts, he said.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Neil Sheehan said that over the last four years, plants that did not have monitoring wells and sampling programs have put them into place.

“Our expectation is that plants must take steps to halt any unmonitored releases of radioactive liquids if they are detected,’’ Sheehan said.

But critics say the NRC has been slow to require monitoring programs that meet “well-established’’ standards. Lampert cited testimony by hydrologist David Ahlfeld on the leaks issue two years ago, when the commission was considering Pilgrim’s 20-year license renewal application.

“It is highly likely that a leak of radiological contaminants could migrate through the ground-water and pass between these widely spaced wells or perhaps flow beneath them without detection,’’ Ahlfeld said. Arguing for a thorough study of ground-water flows and more monitoring wells, he said a monitoring system should test for “a range of radionuclides’’ such as strontium 90 or cesium that would point to a fault in a particular mechanical system if discovered.

The licensing board has not yet made a final decision on Pilgrim’s license extension.

Tarantino, however, said a hydrologist hired by Pilgrim had made a ground-water flow study before recommending placements for its monitoring wells. He also said critics such as Pilgrim Watch have never been satisfied with safety measures taken by the plant.

Lampert said Duxbury’s nuclear committee is also looking to Washington for help on the issue of radioactive leaks. Following leaks in reactors in Vermont, New York, New Jersey, and other states, US Representative Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, and members of Congress from other states earlier this month asked the Government Accounting Office to launch an investigation into “the integrity, safety, inspection, maintenance, regulations, and enforcement issues surrounding buried piping at our nation’s nuclear power plants.’’

Robert Knox can be reached at