Summer Quarterly 2018
By John LaForge
Last February, the Genoa La Crosse Boiling Water Reactor, on the Mississippi River near Genoa, Wisconsin, was found to be leaking radioactive tritium into the groundwater.
The La Crosse Tribune reported March 14 that the firm LaCrosseSolutions, Inc. reported a reading of 24,200 picocuries-per-liter* in water taken from a monitoring well on Feb. 1. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows tritium in drinking water up to 20,000 picocuries-per-liter. This allowable contamination is ten times higher than what the European Union allows.
The tritium in the groundwater from La Crosse’s reactor is a danger to everyone drinking it, but the Tribune reported that the monitoring well water is “not used for human consumption.” This assurance did not come as a relief to people in the area using well water that’s not been tested. Tritium stays in the environment for 123 years, about ten of its radioactive “half-lives” of 12.3 years. This time scale gives the it a lot of time to move through the water and enter the food chain. As an emitter of beta particle radiation it isn’t a great danger outside the body, but can do damage inside the body if inhaled or ingested.
The EPA estimates that seven out of 200,000 people who drink water with 20,000 picocuries-per-liter of tritium for decades would develop cancer. However, because tumors or other cancers may not appear for decades, victims or their survivors are generally unable to be compensated.
LaCrosseSolutions is working an $85 million contract to deconstruct or “decommission” the long-shuttered and partly dismembered La Crosse boiling water reactor. The small unit was shut down in 1987, 31 years ago, after operating for 20 years. Yet it’s still poisoning the environment with radioactive leaks. Unlike other heavy industries, nuclear power’s machinery can keep on poisoning its surroundings even three decades after its profitable public service has ended.
Operating reactors release tritium from vent stacks in the form of tritiated water vapor. This can produce radioactive rainfall, “which can contaminate surface water bodies as well as groundwater,” according to Annie and Arjun Makhijani, of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. But since the La Crosse reactor has ceased operations, the tritium is no long released into the air but now its legacy is poisoned ground, contaminated and corroded pipes and duct work, and tritium leaking into the ground.
Dairyland Power Co-op, which operated the reactor from 1967 to 1987, but transferred its license to LaCrosseSolutions in 2016, isn’t alone in its contamination of groundwater. In June 2011, part two of the Associated Press’s comprehensive four-part investigation of US nuclear power, found that tritium leaks were underway at 48 of 64 US reactor sites, three-quarters of all the country’s commercial reactor operations, “often into groundwater from corroded, buried piping.”
LaCrosseSolutions’s Dirty Clean-up
In addition to the poisoning of groundwater with leaking tritium, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced on March 26 that LaCrosseSolutions had spilled 400 gallons of radioactively contaminated water directly into the Mississippi River in February 2017.
The NRC determined that the spill of waste water containing the deadly isotope cesium-137 was a violation of federal regulations—one of three low-level violations identified in its annual inspection of decommissioning being done by LacrosseSolutions—and that the cesium-137 in water samples was at concentrations exceeding federal limits. The NRC did not issue a citation but found LaCrosseSolutions had violated NRC policy.
* A picocurie is one/trillionth of a curie, or 2.2 atomic disintegration per minute. A curie is a very large amount of radioactivity, about 2.2 trillion atomic disintegrations per minute, or 37 billion disintegrations per second.