Sometime between June 24, 2015 and January 21, 2016, a building remodeling project in Steamboat Springs, CO resulted in the loss of 7.5 curies of tritium. A reasonable guess is that the container holding the tritium was tossed into a construction debris dumpster and carted off to a local landfill.
The incident was reported to the NRC by the state of Colorado via email. The building owners have conducted an inspection of their building and reported they could not find the container. The report to the NRC included a corrective action letter (CAL). Though including more details, the CAL is summarized as follows in the NRC Current Event Notifications for February 8, 2016.
The property management company is reviewing all properties to verify if a Tritium exit signs are still in use and providing the current tenants of regulatory requirements to correct and prevent any future displacement or loss of exit signs containing Tritium.
The NRC’s response to this loss of “less than Cat 3” level of radioactive material was to accept the report and file it in the appropriate location for event notifications.
Aside: From NRC event report: “Sources that are “Less than IAEA Category 3 sources,” are either sources that are very unlikely to cause permanent injury to individuals or contain a very small amount of radioactive material that would not cause any permanent injury. Some of these sources, such as moisture density gauges or thickness gauges that are Category 4, the amount of unshielded radioactive material, if not safely managed or securely protected, could possibly – although it is unlikely – temporarily injure someone who handled it or were otherwise in contact with it, or who were close to it for a period of many weeks.” End Aside.
If the exit sign reported lost in Steamboat Springs was broken and the tritium was dissolved into water, it would contaminate 940,000 liters of water to the “alarming” level of 8,000,000 pCi/liter that has Governor Cuomo in a tizzy about the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant.
So far, I have been unable to find out how much water from the monitoring wells was contaminated to that “alarming” level, but that headline grabbing number — frequently reported as a 65,000% increase over the normal levels found in the wells — was the highest level measured. All of the other reported measurements were far lower.
Early reports indicate that the source of the elevated tritium levels found in three out of approximately 40 monitoring wells was tritiated water from an overflowing sump whose pump failed to start due to a mechanical or electrical problem. The pump was repaired promptly, but a certain amount of water containing tritium was spilled onto the ground.
I’m confident that Entergy either has already reported the total amount of water that could have been spilled along with its tritium concentration or that the company will be making that estimate and report in a reasonably short period of time.
I’ll bet that the total tritium release is substantially less than the lost exit sign in Steamboat Springs and that the proper reaction to the event would be to simply file the report and accept the company’s plan to try to avoid spilling tritiated water in the future.
Aside: I’m well aware of the perfectionist attitudes associated with nuclear energy and radioactivity. The idea is that ANY leakage is unacceptable and that trying to avoid it isn’t good enough. My crude response is that farting in a crowded elevator is unacceptable as well, but it happens without much overreaction. End Aside.
I’ll make an even safer bet that there will be a whole lot more wailing, gnashing of teeth, and accusations of dishonesty or incompetence before this already overblown event is over.
It’s almost a 100% certainty that groups like the UCS will self-righteously proclaim that nuclear power plants are not allowed to leak ANY tritium through unmonitored pathways like overflowing sumps. I’m pretty sure that some activists have already made statements to the effect that this violation of the license requirement of zero leakage should result in an immediate closure of the facility.
My advice to anyone who applies for a reactor operating license in the future is to stubbornly refuse to promise perfection. Good enough is good enough.
Before allowing carefully created and stoked panic to rule the day, I hope New Yorkers take the time to wonder why their elected leader is so worried about a release of a “less than Cat 3” level of radioactive material. I’d like them to consider the incredible cost that closing the plant — even temporarily — would impose, especially when the replacement power would most likely be provided by burning about 300 billion cubic feet of fracked methane every day.