Sequoyah Nuclear Reports Tritium Levels Exceeding 20k pCi/L in offsite groundwater

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October 31, 2011, Sequoyah installed two new groundwater monitoring wells in an area known to have contained previously reported releases of tritium in an effort to further characterize and validate the scope of the plume.

On December 16, 2011, elevated levels of tritium were identified in water samples taken from one new onsite monitoring well.

The tritium levels were confirmed to be greater than 20,000 pCi/L which is the threshold for drinking water. No groundwater monitoring wells are used for drinking or irrigation purposes onsite.

The highest level sampled was 22,760 pCi/L.

“Samples taken in the discharge channel located 30 yards from this groundwater monitoring well confirmed no detectable tritium. Refueling Water Storage Tank levels are being monitored and no active leak is in progress. Samples of adjacent wells have been taken and confirmed no unexpected changes in tritium levels of these wells.

“In a conservative decision making process and in accordance with the groundwater protection initiative established by the nuclear industry, Sequoyah is voluntarily communicating sample results likely attributed to a previously reported tritium spill.

The plant is continuing to review the sample results to confirm this is related to the historical tritium plume.

The plant will take appropriate actions as outlined in the Groundwater Tritium Action Plan, which has been initiated to address this issue. Sequoyah Nuclear Plant has had an extensive groundwater monitoring program in place since 2008. The environmental sampling program consists of sixteen groundwater wells which are periodically sampled in accordance with industry standards.


In September of 2001, the National Nuclear Security Administration has published a Notice of Intent to prepare a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on expanding the production of tritium for nuclear weapons in the Watts Bar and Sequoyah nuclear reactors in Tennessee.

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The NOI includes a startling revelation: current tritium production operations are releasing three to four times the amount of tritium into the Tennessee River as was predicted in the original 1997 EIS.

The reason for the SEIS, though, is not to admit they have dumped more than 30,000 curies of tritium into the Tennessee River. It’s also not to announce the demand for tritium has been less than they originally expected. No, it is to announce they want to expand tritium production—increasing the number of Tritium Producing Burnable Absorber Rods (TPBARs) by 50%!

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Producing weapons tritium in a commercial power reactor, which the US has been doing since 2004, violates a long-standing ban on crossing the line between civilian and nuclear power. The United States, in announcing its intention to violate the ban in 1999 asserted the ban was only on “special nuclear materials” and the “special nuclear materials” means only highly enriched uranium and plutonium. It was a pathetic dodge at the time, and it remains one.

When the US chooses to produce weapons materials in commercial reactors, they essentially give any other country the greenlight to do the same thing.

On December 16, 2011, elevated levels of tritium were identified in water samples taken from one new onsite monitoring well. The tritium levels were confirmed to be greater than 20,000 pCi/L which is the threshold for drinking water. No groundwater monitoring wells are used for drinking or irrigation purposes onsite. The highest level sampled was 22,760 pCi/L.

The Sequoyah Nuclear Plant is a nuclear power plant located on 525 acres (2.1 km²) located 7 miles east of Soddy-Daisy, Tennessee, and 20 miles north of Chattanooga, abutting Chickamauga Lake, on the Tennessee River. The facility is owned and operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

Tritium, an isotope of hydrogen, is used in a thermonuclear weapon to boost its yield. It must be replenished regularly because it has a half-life of only 12 years. With the license, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) contractor, is authorized to insert tritium-producing burnable absorber rods into its Watts Bar and Sequoyah reactors.

The rods will be irradiated over each reactor’s 18-month fuel cycle and then shipped to the DOE-owned Savannah River Site in South Carolina so that the tritium can be extracted for use in nuclear weapons.

Sequoyah’s reactor units 1 and 2 will each irradiate up to 2,256 tritium-producing burnable absorber rods for one fuel cycle. Sequoyah’s two reactors will commence tritium production separately, with Unit 2 beginning irradiation in the fall of 2003 and Unit 1 a year later. The DOE halted all tritium production in 1988. Although the tritium extracted from dismantled weapons can be used to meet short-term needs, the department sought to identify a new production source before 2005 to provide enough tritium to maintain the U.S. nuclear stockpile at START I levels, as required in a presidential directive. (See ACT, November/December 1998.) As a result of the May 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, also known as the Moscow Treaty, the tritium requirement might be lower in the future, but for now the DOE’s plans are based on START I numbers.

Following an extensive review of options, including building a linear accelerator or remodeling a mothballed nuclear power plant, in 1998 the DOE chose the less-costly option of using civilian light-water reactors for its production. The department designated the Watts Bar and Sequoyah facilities to produce tritium to help maintain the country’s nuclear arsenal. The license amendments for the two TVA-operated reactors allow the contractor to install and irradiate rods for the life of each power plant.

The United States has traditionally discouraged other countries from using their civilian nuclear capabilities for military purposes. Everet Beckner, deputy administrator for defense programs at the National Nuclear Security Administration, maintained in an October 25 interview that the U.S. tritium decision does not reflect a shift in policy because “the use of the TVA reactors to irradiate [rods] is to support the existing U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.” He emphasized that “the United States is not producing new nuclear weapons and has not since 1989.”

According to Beckner, the United States has no plans to re-examine options for tritium production. “This approach was judged to be the least costly and offered the greatest flexibility in meeting changing demands. With the Moscow Treaty in place, tritium demands in the coming years are expected to decline.”

Fact Sheet

• May 6, 1999 – Then-U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Bill Richardson selects TVA’s Watts Bar and Sequoyah nuclear plants for the tritium production program. DOE says this is the most efficient alternative to ensure the continued safety, security, and reliability of the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile.

• May 22, 1999 – The Secretary of Energy and the Chairman of the NRC sign a joint Memorandum of Understanding establishing the basis for NRC review and consultation regarding DOE’s use of commercial reactors for producing tritium. The memorandum supplements a 1978 agreement between DOE and NRC and relates solely to producing tritium.

• December 1999 – TVA’s Board of Directors approves an Interagency Agreement for TVA to provide services for tritium production effective January 2000. Under the terms of the agreement, TVA is responsible for providing irradiation services in the program; DOE assumes responsibility for all other aspects, and the agreement protects consumers of TVA power and TVA bondholders. According to the agreement, TVA will recover costs associated with the program and is given protection against any economic risks. TVA retains the right to operate the reactors for their primary mission of producing electricity.

• Aug. 20, 2001 – TVA submits a license amendment application to the NRC to produce tritium at Watts Bar.

• Sept. 21, 2001 – TVA submits a license amendment application to the NRC to produce tritium at Sequoyah.

• Sept. 23, 2002 – The NRC issues approval for Watts Bar’s license amendment.

• Sept. 30, 2002 – The NRC issues approval for Sequoyah’s license amendment.

• Dec. 13, 2002 – As a result of the Department of Energy’s December 13, 2002, direction on irradiation requirements, the Sequoyah site goes into a baseline standby phase as of January 1, 2003, and will remain in this phase until notified to prepare to irradiate TPBARs. The Watts Bar site goes into “Prepare to Irradiate” phase as of January 1, 2003, in anticipation of irradiation of TPBARs after the Watts Bar fall 2003 outage.

• During the future “Prepare to Irradiate” phase for Sequoyah, TVA will update procedures and programs, and certify readiness prior to the first operating cycle that TPBARs are irradiated. Lessons learned from the Watts Bar irradiation will be incorporated into the Sequoyah programs and procedures.

• Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen required by all U.S. nuclear weapons in order to function as designed.

• Because it decays at a rate of about 5.5 percent per year, tritium must be replaced periodically.

• As a corporation created by Congress, TVA has an obligation to and a long history of supporting the nation’s security requirements. TVA’s history of supporting U.S. national security requirements includes making material in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, that was used in military munitions and building dams that supplied power for the vital aluminum factories and Oak Ridge National Laboratory during World War II.

• At the request of DOE, TVA will again support the nation’s defense needs by providing irradiation services so that DOE can meet the requirements of the Presidential directive. TVA has signed an interagency agreement to use reactors at Watts Bar (and Sequoyah in the future) to produce tritium for DOE’s use.

• The rods that will be used for tritium production are simply another type of burnable absorber rods. These rods use lithium aluminate ceramic rather than boron carbide to absorb neutrons.

• DOE developed a technology for producing tritium using lithium, rather than boron, in burnable absorber rods installed in commercial pressurized-water reactors. Neutron irradiation of the lithium burnable absorber in the reactor core converts the lithium to tritium. The tritium producing burnable absorber rods (TPBARs) will be removed from the fuel assemblies and shipped to the Savannah River Site, where DOE will extract the tritium.

• The TPBARs arrived at TVA physically intact and will leave TVA physically intact. The rods will be placed in a certain number of fuel assemblies and placed in Watts Bar’s reactor fuel assemblies, replacing burnable absorber rods.

• The TPBARs provide the same function as standard burnable absorber rods in the reactor core, except tritium will be produced and contained within the sealed rod when neutrons strike the lithium aluminate ceramic material.

•As soon as tritium gas is produced in the rod, it will be captured in a solid zirconium material in the rod called a “getter.” This getter is so effective that the rods will have to be heated to temperatures in excess of 1,000 degrees Centigrade at the Savannah River Site Tritium Extraction Facility before the tritium can be recovered.

Source: TVA

Power Reactor Event Number: 47534
Facility: SEQUOYAH
Region: 2 State: TN
Unit: [1] [2] [ ]
RX Type: [1] W-4-LP,[2] W-4-LP
NRC Notified By: TIM RIEGER
HQ OPS Officer: JOHN KNOKE
Notification Date: 12/19/2011
Notification Time: 17:25 [ET]
Event Date: 12/19/2011
Event Time: 16:44 [EST]
Last Update Date: 12/19/2011
Emergency Class: NON EMERGENCY
10 CFR Section:
50.72(b)(2)(xi) – OFFSITE NOTIFICATION
Person (Organization):
SCOTT FREEMAN (R2DO)
Unit SCRAM Code RX CRIT Initial PWR Initial RX Mode Current PWR Current RX Mode
1 N Y 100 Power Operation 100 Power Operation
2 N Y 100 Power Operation 100 Power Operation
OFFSITE NOTIFICATION DUE TO TRITIUM LEVELS EXCEEDING THRESHOLD FOR DRINKING WATER”At 1644 EST, on 12/19/11, TVA’s Sequoyah Nuclear Plant made voluntary offsite notifications to the Tennessee Radiological Health Department Director and the Tennessee Department of Environmental Conservation – Senior Director Water Programs, to inform them of the following:

“On October 31, 2011, Sequoyah proactively installed two new groundwater monitoring wells in an area known to have contained previously reported releases of tritium in an effort to further characterize and validate the scope of the plume. These releases were reported in 2006 as part of NEI’s [Nuclear Energy Institute] groundwater initiative. On December 16, 2011, elevated levels of tritium were identified in water samples taken from one new onsite monitoring well. The tritium levels were confirmed to be greater than 20,000 pCi/L which is the threshold for drinking water. No groundwater monitoring wells are used for drinking or irrigation purposes onsite. The highest level sampled was 22,760 pCi/L.

“Samples taken in the discharge channel located 30 yards from this groundwater monitoring well confirmed no detectable tritium. Refueling Water Storage Tank levels are being monitored and no active leak is in progress. Samples of adjacent wells have been taken and confirmed no unexpected changes in tritium levels of these wells. Additionally, Sequoyah has sampled at the station discharge to the Tennessee River and confirmed no detectable levels in any sample.

“In a conservative decision making process and in accordance with the groundwater protection initiative established by the nuclear industry, Sequoyah is voluntarily communicating sample results likely attributed to a previously reported tritium spill. The plant is continuing to review the sample results to confirm this is related to the historical tritium plume. The plant will take appropriate actions as outlined in the Groundwater Tritium Action Plan, which has been initiated to address this issue. Sequoyah Nuclear Plant has had an extensive groundwater monitoring program in place since 2008. The environmental sampling program consists of sixteen groundwater wells which are periodically sampled in accordance with industry standards.

“The NRC Resident Inspector has been notified. The following agencies have been, or will be updated: Hamilton County, State of Tennessee, Nuclear Energy Institute and American Nuclear Insurers. Tennessee Valley Authority plans a media notification for this issue.”

 

Source: NRC Event Notifications

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