Clean-up of a radioactive water leak underway at the Minnesota nuclear power plant

By Sam Cabral, BBC News, Washington, March 17, 2023

Updated 2 hours ago

Image source, Getty Images

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The radioactive spill came from a pipe between two buildings at the Monticello nuclear power plant

Officials oversee the cleaning up of a 400,000 gallon (1.5 million liter) leak of radioactive water from a local nuclear power plant in Minnesota.

Xcel Energy, the utility that operates the facility, said the spill was “completely contained on site and undetected outside of the facility.”

State officials said there was no immediate public health risk.

The leak was first spotted in late November, but state officials didn’t update the public until Thursday.

The water contains tritium, a common by-product of nuclear power plant operations.

Tritium is a naturally occurring radioactive isotope of hydrogen and emits a weak form of beta radiation that doesn’t travel very far in air and can’t penetrate human skin, according to the Federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Tritium leaks occasionally occur at nuclear power plants but are usually contained on site and rarely affect public health or safety, the NRC says.

Xcel first discovered the leak on November 21 in a pipe between two buildings at its Monticello facility. The facility is located approximately 35 miles (56 km) upriver along the Mississippi River from the state’s most populous city, Minneapolis.

The Minnesota Department of Health said the leak did not reach the Mississippi River.

The company said it notified the state and the NRC the next day.

“Of course, if there had been any public safety concerns at any point, we would have provided more information immediately. But we also wanted to make sure we fully understood what was going on before we began raising concerns with the public around us,” Xcel Energy-Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota President Chris Clark told CBS News, the BBC’s US affiliate.

“Xcel Energy acted quickly to contain the leak at the facility, which poses no health and safety risk to the local community or the environment,” the Minnesota-based utility said in a statement Thursday.

State officials said they were waiting for more information before going public with the leak, but confirmed the water on Xcel’s property remains trapped and poses no immediate public health risk.

On Friday, the mayor of Monticello defended the city’s response, saying that city officials only found out about the leak “at the end of February” and that the city had no authority over the power plant.

“Although the Xcel power plant is located in our community, the City of Monticello does not have the authority to direct the nuclear power plant,” Mayor Lloyd Hilgart said in a statement, saying oversight is carried out by state and federal officials.

“If state or federal regulatory agencies determine that there is a potential or actual impact on the city’s drinking water supply or infrastructure, the city will promptly notify the public with the assistance of those agencies,” he said.

According to Xcel Energy, crews have inspected the plant at all points where leaks could occur and will examine the leaking pipe in a laboratory.

About a quarter of the spilled tritium has been recovered so far, and Xcel has said it may build above-ground storage tanks to store the contaminated water.

It is also considered how the collected tritium and water can be treated, reused or disposed of.

The company had a small leak at its Monticello plant back in 2009.


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