Minnesota nuclear power plant shut down due to leak; Local residents worry

By TRISHA AHMED and MATTHEW DALY – Associated Press

MONTICELLO, Minn. (AP) — A Minnesota utility company began shutting down a nuclear power plant near Minneapolis on Friday after failing to stop the release of radioactive material it says is not dangerous, but has raised concerns among local residents.

Xcel Energy has begun shutting down the Monticello plant, and after it cools over the next few days, workers will cut out a tube over 50 years old that had leaked tritium, said Chris Clark, the utility’s president. The utility will then have the pipe analyzed in hopes of preventing similar leaks in the future, he said.

“We could certainly have continued to operate the plant and simply repaired the catchment area, but then of course there is always a risk that it will spill over again and more tritium will get into the groundwater,” Clark said during a press conference near the Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant, for example 35 miles (56 kilometers) northwest of Minneapolis: “We didn’t want to take that risk, so we’re shutting down the facility.”

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Clark said the tritium posed no risk to the drinking water of Monticello or the nearby town of Becker. He said Monticello gets its water from the Mississippi upstream from the facility and Becker’s intake is across the river. Even if the tritium did reach the river, which Clark assured, it would dissipate within a few feet, he said.

Clark said the spill did not leave the utility property.

Xcel discovered in November that about 400,000 gallons (1.5 million liters) of tritiated water had leaked. The utility took a temporary fix, but learned this week that hundreds more gallons of tritiated water had leaked, prompting the decision to shut down.

The utility reported the leak to state and federal authorities in late November, but only made the spill widely known last week, raising questions about transparency and public health issues. State officials said they wanted to wait for more details before disseminating information widely.

Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that occurs naturally and is a common by-product of nuclear power plant operations. It emits a weak form of beta radiation that doesn’t travel far and cannot penetrate human skin, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Cindy Remick, of Becker, attended an information session about the leak on Friday and said she still had concerns that nearby residents, particularly those who depended on well water, were safe. Remick is also concerned about whether the radioactive material could harm wildlife along the Mississippi River.

“We have a very large population of eagles here and I want to make sure they are not affected,” Remick said. “Minnesota is known for our wildlife, and if that (tritium) from your plant leaks into the Mississippi River, it could be very damaging.”

Tyler Abayare, who was fishing on the Mississippi River near the facility on Friday, said he has been coming to the river every day for five years and he usually sees about 15 to 20 others also fishing.

“Usually this time of year, a lot of families come out with their kids and fish,” he said. “Now that the media has published what happened there is not a soul in sight and that only detracts from the recreation and passion for fishing.”

He said he didn’t think tritiated water didn’t make it to the Mississippi. He doesn’t eat the fish he catches and said he no longer ties his line with his teeth but makes sure to only use his hands so he doesn’t get sick.

Inspectors from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are overseeing the shutdown and repairs, said Victoria Mitlyng, a spokeswoman for the agency.

“It is important to note that while NRC inspectors are closely monitoring the facility’s actions to address the leak as required, this leak does not pose a safety challenge to the public, potable water supply, facility or the environment,” Mitlyng said in a statement. “The leak did not exceed any NRC limits and the company is in compliance with NRC requirements.”

Clark acknowledged that some local officials and residents were unhappy that the utility did not immediately report the spill to the public, even though the utility made the necessary notifications to state and federal agencies. He said the call for more transparency was one of the reasons he held a press conference and invited local residents to the briefing.

Though shutting down the plant comes at a cost, Clark said electricity demand is lower at this time of year and other power plants can meet customer demand. The utility had already planned to shut down the plant for nearly a month on April 15 for refueling, and Clark said it wasn’t clear if it would reopen immediately after the leak was fixed.

Clark said the leaked pipe was part of the original facility, which opened in 1971. Xcel has applied to extend its Monticello operating license to 2050.

“We have invested hundreds of millions of dollars while operating Monticello over those 50 years, and as we seek permission from the NRC to extend the facility’s operation for additional years, we want to inventory the age of everything at the facility and be sure we’re dealing with anything we need to update.”

Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the fact that there was a second tritium leak at the Monticello site “sheds light on the problem of maintaining aging pipelines” underground at older nuclear plants like Monticello.

“It’s bad timing for them” to have multiple tritium leaks while pursuing license renewal, Lyman said.

The temporary closure of the plant could be a big caution, “or it could be a sign that they don’t know how bad the problem is and they have to dive deep to find out what’s going on,” he said.

Tim Judson, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a group opposed to nuclear power, said the second leak at the plant was “obviously of concern,” adding that tritium can spread quickly if it gets into groundwater.

Judson and Lyman both said public concerns about the possible health risks of the tritium leak were compounded by the recent derailment of a toxic train in Ohio. Residents in eastern Palestinians remain concerned about potential health effects, although government officials have pledged that the air and water around the train derailment and explosion are safe.

“People see what happened in Ohio and don’t trust the government’s response,” Judson said.

Daly reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Scott McFetridge of Des Moines, Iowa contributed to this story.

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.


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