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Illinois Community Struggles with Continued Industrial Pollution

April 17, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


JAMES GLASGOW, WILL COUNTY STATE’S LAWYER: It reminded me of a Homer Simpson episode that I saw where Homer worked at the local reactor and would put his jelly doughnut on the control panel. It’s that bad.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT, NewsHour Correspondent: What Jim Glasgow says is that bad is the way Exelon Corporation handled the leaking of at least six million gallons of water containing radioactive tritium from its Braidwood plant in Braceville, Illinois.

Will County state’s attorney Glasgow was outraged that the country’s leading nuclear power generator didn’t publicly acknowledge at least six spills until recently, even though the first one happened in 1996. And he criticized the construction and maintenance of an underground pipeline that allowed so many spills of tritium, which is a byproduct of the nuclear process.

JAMES GLASGOW: Do we have a company that had an accident, and then immediately notified everyone, and tried to fix it, and acted in good faith? We have just the opposite. We have an absolute disregard for the health, safety and welfare of the local people. They don’t tell until they’re caught. Then they make promises that they don’t fulfill.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Exelon promised Bob and Linda Keca that the groundwater surrounding their home was safe, so they built their dream home last year, even though the nuclear plant is right next door. The Keca’s new home is next to the house where they raised their four children.

ROBERT KECA, Resident Near Nuclear Plant: What were we swimming in the pool, the kids showering in at anytime from when these things happened? And that they never said a word about them for all those years. By them not saying something, they flipped a coin on my four kids, and my wife’s, and mine, on our lives, on our health.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Exelon Vice President Thomas O’Neill says the company did what it was supposed to do in the 2000 leak, notify the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency, though he admits no notifications were made of earlier leaks.

THOMAS O’NEILL, Vice President, Exelon: We did what we were required to do at the time. We recognize now that reporting to your regulators is perhaps not enough, that there’s compliance, but there’s beyond compliance. And as we go forward, you know, we understand that communications with the residents around the plant, with the elected officials is important.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Federal regulations permit nuclear plants to use pipelines to discharge diluted tritium into the nearest river. Braidwood dumps its tritiated water into the Kankakee River. There it’s expected it will be diluted even further.

But when a pipeline leaks into surface and groundwater, the percentage of tritium is higher. It can enter the body through the mouth, the lungs, or the skin. Chronic exposure to tritium can increase the risk for cancer, birth defects, and genetic damage. That’s a big concern in areas like this, where most people depend on well water.

The Nuclear Information and Resource Service says accidental tritium releases have contaminated groundwater at seven nuclear plants across the country.

Joe Cosgrove, park director in nearby Godley, started hearing about tritium when he went after Braidwood in 2000 for a diesel fuel leak that forced the park to start using bottled water. That leak got him thinking.

JOE COSGROVE, Park Superintendent: And I think probably at that time we lost our naivete. You know, we live next to a nuclear plant. You know, it’s not a chocolate factory. And what other things should we be concerned about? We did find out about a tritium release that had happened several months after the diesel fuel leak that was…

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: How did you find that out?

JOE COSGROVE: One of the reporters faxed me a document from the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety about an inspection they had made in 2000, based on this release of three million gallons of water. That was our first knowledge of tritium; in fact, I never even knew what the word was until that day.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Cosgrove does admit the town has benefited from the tax dollars generated by Exelon. His well-equipped park district wouldn’t exist without those tax dollars. The area’s schools per-pupil spending is nearly double the state average. The high school boasts a magnificent auditorium, up-to-date science and computer labs, and superior athletic facilities.

But now, school superintendent John Asplund wonders about the trade-off.

JOHN ASPLUND, Superintendent of Schools: I’ve thought about this a lot: Is there any amount of money that makes it OK to die by cancer? Is there any amount of money that makes it OK to be lied to, with something being potentially going to kill you?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: At issue is just how much tritium is in the soil and water and how dangerous it is.

Right here is where the 1998 and 2000 spills occurred, dumping more than three million gallons of water under the ground. It is now where the highest levels of tritium are found in the groundwater, at levels more than 10 times the national EPA standards.

COMMUNITY LEADER: Welcome to this special meeting.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: At a community meeting called to address residents’ concerns, Exelon’s O’Neill argued that residents’ health and safety were not jeopardized by the tritium leaks.

THOMAS O’NEILL: A key message here, people, a key message is this: The tritium amounts that are in the ground are of such concentrations that they are low and they are not a health hazard to you. This tritium is not in the drinking water, except for one well.

And at that well, that drinking well was something called 1,550 picocuries per liter. The drinking water standard is 20,000 picocuries per liter, and the one drinking well that has tritium in it is well, well below the drinking water standard.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But physicist Arjun Makhijani, who has studied the health effects of radiation for the last 25 years, says even low amounts can be hazardous.

ARJUN MAKHIJANI, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research: Tritium in any amount would present a health and safety standard. Just because there is a drinking water limit of 20,000 picocuries per liter doesn’t mean that 5,000 or 1,000 picocuries per liter won’t hurt you. They do pose a risk, proportionately a lower risk, but it’s not a zero risk.

So I think Exelon should just cool it and stop telling people that there is no harm from low levels of tritium, because it’s contrary to the established science, and the official scientific guidance, and the basis of all regulations.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Makhijani believes tritium acts like a bullet inside the body’s cells, breaking the DNA strands, leaving damaged cells that can develop into cancers. Those most vulnerable are pregnant women and children.

ARJUN MAKHIJANI: Tritium has higher risks for children, because they’re growing faster and their cells are multiplying faster. So whenever you have that kind of situation, radioactivity generally will have a greater impact, and tritium especially because it crosses the placenta.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Many residents of Wilmington, just downstream from the Braidwood plant, say this is the first they had heard that Braidwood was allowed to release diluted tritium three times a week into the Kankakee River.

City officials say the levels in the water supply are very safe. Exelon insists the regulated releases are up to code and says it will do all it can to clean up the accidental spills and make nearby landowners whole if they can’t sell their property for what they expected.

THOMAS O’NEILL: We have an obligation to clean up the mess we made, and we will do that. We have an obligation to earn your trust back because of the failures that we had in communicating, and we will attempt to do that.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But the crowd at the meeting was a hard sell.

COUNCIL MEETING ATTENDEE: Personally, I have no trust whatsoever for anyone who has anything to do with Exelon at all.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And they were even more worried when Exelon announced there had been another spill. Tritium they had been holding in these open containers at the plant while the pipelines were being examined spilled during a windstorm.

Homeowners living near the plant have filed private lawsuits against Exelon. The Kecas are also considering suing, knowing their dream of retiring on land they once considered pristine is gone.