The Government Accountability Office (GAO) says in a new report that while all U.S. nuclear plant sites have had some groundwater contamination from radioactive leaks,  there was no discernable impact on the public’s health from radioactive leaks at three nuclear plants it investigated. It concludes, however, that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) could better identify and characterize the leaks if it required transparent monitoring data from licensees.

In the report, "Nuclear Regulatory Commission: Oversight of Underground Piping Systems Commensurate with Risk, but Proactive Measures Could Help Address Future Leaks," the GAO recommended that the NRC should periodically assess the effectiveness of the groundwater initiative and determine whether structural integrity tests should be included in licensee inspection requirements when they become feasible.

The NRC’s groundwater monitoring requirements generally focus on monitoring offsite locations—where a member of the public could be exposed to radiation—but not on onsite groundwater monitoring, “which can improve the likelihood that leaks will be detected before they migrate off-site,” the GAO says.

“In addition, NRC has assessed its regulatory framework for, and oversight of, inspection of underground piping systems and groundwater monitoring. Based on the low risk posed by spills to date, NRC determined that no further regulations are needed at this time but has committed to such actions as gathering information on underground piping leak trends and reviewing codes and standards for underground piping.”

In related news, the NRC and the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) separately criticized the Associated Press (AP) for “selective, misleading” reporting in a series of new articles on U.S. nuclear power plant safety. The AP report found that tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, has leaked from at least 48 of 65 nuclear sites, according to NRC records. Leaks from at least 37 of those facilities reportedly contained concentrations exceeding the federal drinking water standard, up to hundreds of times the limit. The report concluded that the NRC has been making standards less stringent so that aging nuclear reactors will be compliant with operating requirements.

“Just as a power outage was the root cause of the core meltdowns at Fukushima, a failure of buried pipes that carry cooling water to the reactor cores could lead to a similar emergency here in the U.S.,” said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), citing the AP report. “There would be no warning because no one ever checks the integrity of these underground pipes. These pipes have more leaks than the Vancouver Canucks goaltending. The NRC must require inspections of these pipes before they deteriorate instead of its current policy of crossing fingers and hoping for the best.”

The NRC said in a statement that the federal agency has a “robust and comprehensive” approach to holding U.S. nuclear power plants to strict safety standards. “The AP article fails to recognize that the NRC’s own inspection and maintenance requirements have led plants to detect and repair, replace or otherwise fix the equipment, systems or other issues that were described in the article and in other instances which were not highlighted. For example, the NRC’s inspections last year at the Fort Calhoun plant in Nebraska showed the plant needed to correct deficiencies in its flood response plan. The NRC increased its oversight of Fort Calhoun while the plant responded, and today the plant is very well positioned to ride out the current extreme Missouri River flooding while keeping the public safe.”

The NEI said the AP’s coverage “has factual errors, fails to cite relevant reports on safety that contradict the reporting, and raises questions about historic operating issues while ignoring more recent evidence of improved performance in areas that it examines.”

Sources: POWERnews, GAO, AP, NRC, NEI