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Published: Saturday, 10/25/2008

Davis-Besse radioactive leak is fixed

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

OAK HARBOR, Ohio - Radioactive tritium was found leaking from a drainage pipe at FirstEnergy Corp.'s Davis-Besse nuclear plant north of Oak Harbor, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said yesterday.

Businesses and homeowners near the plant, though, can continue using their water, Viktoria Mitlyng, an agency spokesman, said.

FirstEnergy rerouted the drainage pipe, and the utility is in the process of pinpointing the leak and fixing it, she said.

Monitoring wells show the radioactive, watery material has not migrated off the Davis-Besse complex, she said. Davis-Besse is 30 miles east of Toledo and along State Rt. 2 in Ottawa County, west of Port Clinton.

It was not clear how the leak occurred.

The agency was notified of the leak shortly before midnight Thursday by FirstEnergy, 32 hours after a utility crew discovered the problem at 4 p.m. Wednesday.

The state of Ohio and officials from Lucas and Ottawa counties were notified at 9 a.m. Thursday, according to a report FirstEnergy filed with the NRC.

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) is asking the NRC to provide her details "on what risk might be presented by this leak," said Steve Fought, a spokesman for her Toledo office.

He said the congressman also wants to know if the agency believes anything was unusual about the amount of time taken for notification.

"We don't want to cause anybody alarm if there is no cause for alarm," Mr. Fought said. "[But] if there ever was an opportunity to err on the side of caution, it would be with nuclear power."

The NRC has no problem with the time it took to be notified, Ms. Mitlyng said.

The carbon steel drainage pipe carries liquid waste that is a byproduct of the nuclear generating process from Davis-Besse's turbine/water-treatment building to the power station's settling basins.

From there, it is diluted in standing water and eventually is discharged into Lake Erie's drainage basin, which is monitored, according to FirstEnergy.

Monitors at the plant have not picked up any detectable levels of tritium entering Lake Erie, probably because the concentration of the leak is heavily diluted by water in the settling basins, Ms. Mitlyng said.

The leak was discovered during fire-protection equipment inspections. It is not known how long the pipe has been leaking.

FirstEnergy's report, based largely on the condition of the pipe, said the volume of leakage is "conservatively assumed to be more than 100 gallons, but this cannot be quantified at this time."

Recent laboratory tests on samples from 30 monitoring wells at the complex are being expedited to see whether it can be determined when the leak began.

Additional sampling is planned, the utility said.

The tritium was leaking at a rate nearly twice the level the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers a safe limit for drinking water.

The NRC has its two resident inspectors watching the situation.

The leak will become the focus of the plant's annual environmental assessment next month, Ms. Mitlyng said.

NRC records show there have been at least seven other nuclear plants that have had tritium releases in recent years - none of which endangered public health, the agency said.

The nuclear industry and the NRC have been focusing on the possibility of large water leaks, David Lochbaum, nuclear safety engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said.

But he added that they need to pay more attention to small leaks that are likely to occur with greater frequency.

His group and others petitioned the NRC nearly two years ago to become more aggressive at detecting small leaks of radioactive liquids at nuclear plants. The NRC did not act on it.

Instead, the agency yielded to a voluntary monitoring and reporting program at the request of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's lobbying group on Capitol Hill.

Mr. Lochbaum said it was a fluke Davis-Besse's radioactive water was discovered because workers only happened to stumble upon it while inspecting fire-protection equipment.

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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