Report: Illinois nuclear plants experience multiple radioactive leaks

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The Better Government Association published an article Friday on radioactive leaks occurring at Exelon plants in Illinois, including at plants in Will and Grundy counties.

The report concerns at least 35 reported leaks, spills or other accidental releases of water since 2007 containing tritium, a naturally occurring radioactive form of hydrogen and a byproduct of nuclear power production.

Of those 35 events, the report said that 27 occurred at Exelon’s Dresden facility in Grundy County, east of Morris, and four happened at the Braidwood Generating Station in Braceville.

The report added that Exelon self-reported all of the accidents, and that no fines were issued.

One specific occurrence that the report cited was a 2014 leak at the Dresden Generating Station in Morris that involved “the release of about 500,000 gallons of highly radioactive water.” The report said that there was contamination found in the plant’s sewer lines as well as miles away in the city sewage treatment plant in Morris.

A Dresden spokesman said at the time that an unidentified amount of tritium leaked into the groundwater at the Morris facility, but it did not compromise the water supplies serving private residents. A small amount of tritiated water also was discharged into the Kankakee River after it went through the facility's sewage treatment plant, but it was less than 1 percent of the amount Dresden is permitted to release into the water.

Morris Mayor Richard Kopczick said that although these kinds of accidents happen, the BGA report did not give him cause for concern.

“What I read was not an alarming thing,” Kopczick said. “These things happen everywhere.”

Kopczick said that the city monitors its water systems for radioactive material. The water the city uses has radium levels higher than permitted by the Environmental Protection Agency, but that is because of deep limestone aquifers, or underground layers of water-bearing rock, which naturally produce the radium. The city uses a water treatment plant to reduce the amount of radium in water and make it safe to drink, but this is a naturally occurring process that would happen even if the Dresden plant was not nearby.

The BGA report said that Exelon, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Illinois EPA and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency said that the leaks posed no danger to the public and did not contaminate drinking water.

According to the NRC, tritium emits a weak form of radiation that does not travel very far in the air and cannot penetrate the skin, but any exposure to radiation could pose health risks, including cancer. Both the BGA report and the NRC website said that with approval from the government, plants routinely release diluted concentrations of tritiated water into rivers and lakes. These releases are “closely monitored,” according to the NRC.

In a statement from Exelon that the BGA published, the company defended its practices.

“No Exelon generation water release, planned or unplanned, has ever caused residential drinking water to be unsafe,” the statement read. “In all cases since 2007, we have met all state and federal reporting criteria and kept our local stakeholders informed.”

Alex Ortiz

Alex Ortiz is a reporter for The Herald-News in Joliet. Originally from Romeoville, Ill., he joined The Herald-News in 2017 and mostly covers Will County government, politics, education and more. He earned his bachelor's degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a master's degree from Northwestern University.