People keep lecturing me about how safe nuclear power really is, but I'm not quite convinced yet:
LACEY TOWNSHIP, N.J. — Radioactive water that leaked from the nation's oldest nuclear power plant has now reached a major underground aquifer that supplies drinking water to much of southern New Jersey, the state's environmental chief said Friday.
The state Department of Environmental Protection has ordered the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station to halt the spread of contaminated water underground, even as it said there was no imminent threat to drinking water supplies.
The department launched a new investigation Friday into the April 2009 spill and said the actions of plant owner Exelon Corp. have not been sufficient to contain water contaminated with tritium.
Tritium is found naturally in tiny amounts and is a product of nuclear fission. It has been linked to cancer if ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin in large amounts.
"There is a problem here," said environmental Commissioner Bob Martin. "I am worried about the continuing spread of the tritium into the groundwater and its gradual moving toward wells in the area. This is not something that can wait. That would be unacceptable."
The tritium leaked from underground pipes at the plant on April 9, 2009, and has been slowly spreading underground at 1 to 3 feet a day. At the current rate, it would be 14 or 15 years before the tainted water reaches the nearest private or commercial drinking water wells about two miles away.
But the mere fact that the radioactive water — at concentrations 50 times higher than those allowed by law — has reached southern New Jersey's main source of drinking water calls for urgent action, Martin said.
He ordered the Chicago-based company to install new monitoring wells to better measure the extent of the contamination, and to come up with a plan to keep it from ever reaching a well.
The contamination is not a new issue, plant spokesman David Benson said, questioning the need for Martin's order.
"We have monitoring wells on site, and the tritium concentration is down steadily, sometimes by as much as 90 percent," he said. "We are drilling more wells, and we will work closely with the state. We have been all along."
Should the plant fail to stem the spread of the contaminated water, the state will do it and bill the company for three times the cost as a penalty, the environmental department said.