A Reactor's Risks

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Scott Burnell of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was quoted in a Nov. 28 Metro article ["Happy in Their Haven Beside the Nuclear Plant"] as saying that water in Virginia's Lake Anna never comes in contact with the North Anna nuclear reactor.

But it does. The two-unit reactor site routinely discharges into Lake Anna not only tremendous amounts of heat -- because the reactors are only 33 percent thermally efficient, 67 percent of the fission-generated heat is dumped -- but also radioactivity. According to NRC records, since 2000 alone, the reactor's operators have released more than 5,700 curies of radioactive water (tritium with a radioactive half-life of 12.3 years) into the lake.

It is increasingly uncertain what constitutes a "permissible" radiation exposure. The NRC's "protective" standard for radioactive tritium in drinking water is 1 million picocuries per liter. While the Environmental Protection Agency standard is 20,000 picocuries per liter, Colorado and California have set theirs at 400 per liter.

Granted, people don't drink out of the lake, but federal economic consideration of the cost to industry to allow for such dumping has outweighed just how easily this radioactive form of hydrogen can be absorbed, inhaled and ingested. Tritium exposure is proven to cause cancer and birth defects. There is no clinical safe dose.

Eleven reactors discharge into the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Water consumption and thermal pollution by power plants (fossil-fueled and nuclear) are increasingly contentious issues. Radioactive contamination of ground and surface waters from accidental leaks and routine permitted discharges are also under increasing scrutiny for the sake of public health and safety.


Director, Reactor Oversight Program

Beyond Nuclear

Takoma Park

© 2007 The Washington Post Company