Nuclear power plants have a life expectancy of about 40 years. Many U.S. plants are near the end of that span—and like many humans at a similar stage, their plumbing is going to hell, writes Terry J. Allen in In These Times. “America’s nuclear power plants are more incontinent than a nonagenarian with an enlarged prostate,” she warns, noting that pipes at 27 of America’s 65 nuclear power sites have leaked radioactive material.
Nonetheless, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has grandfathered in lower standards and rubberstamped all 59 applications it received for extending the operating life of reactors for another 20 years, and is … expected to consider 37 more renewals in the next seven years.
Allen notes that a leak was discovered this spring at the 38-year-old Vermont Yankee plant, which was the site of a fire in 2004 and a partially collapsed cooling tower in 2007. The Vermont legislature refused to relicense the facility beyond its 2012 license expiration, and just a couple of weeks ago Rep. Edward Markey (D.-Mass), the chairman of the House energy and environment subcommittee, cited Vermont Yankee as a poster child for derelict nuclear plants in a letter to the NRC that was reported by the Washington Independent:
“After decades underground, neither the NRC nor the plant operators can be absolutely certain that the pipes are intact. I am appalled by the safety procedures not only at Vermont Yankee, but at other nuclear facilities across the country who have failed to inspect thousands of miles of buried pipes at their facilities.”
Another nuclear plant leak in Vermont, reported by the Boston Globe the day before Markey sent his letter, had put an exclamation point on the issue. Tritium was discovered in a monitoring well outside the Pilgrim Nuclear Station in Plymouth, and while the NRC said the leak wasn’t a threat to public health, the official line from Pilgrim wasn’t exactly reassuring:
David Tarantino, Pilgrim spokesman, said that a team of environmental engineers, chemists, maintenance, and operations specialists, and others are now trying to pinpoint the source of the tritium.
“It’s in an area where there’s lots of underground systems that carry radioactive water, but we can’t even say for certain that it’s a leaking system yet,’’ he said.