Radioactive waste continues to pour from Exelon’s Illinois nuclear power plants more than a decade after the discovery of leaks, an investigation by a government watchdog group found.
Since 2007, there have been at least 35 reported leaks, spills or other accidental releases in Illinois of water contaminated with radioactive tritium, a byproduct of nuclear power production and a carcinogen at high levels, a Better Government Association review of federal and state records shows.
No fines were issued for the accidents, all of which were self-reported by Exelon, the report said.
The most recent leak of 35,000 gallons (132,000 liters) occurred over two weeks in May and June at Exelon’s Braidwood plant, southwest of Chicago. The same facility that suffered after a series of accidents in the mid-2000s stirred debate over the safety of aging nuclear plants.
A 2014 incident at Exelon’s Dresden facility in Grundy County involved the release of about 500,000 gallons (1,900,000 liters) of highly radioactive water. Contamination was later found in the plant’s sewer lines and miles away in the Morris, IL, sewage treatment plant.
Another leak was discovered in 2007 at the Quad Cities plant in Cordova. It took eight months to plug and led to groundwater radiation readings up to 375 times of that allowed under federal safe drinking water standards.
Exelon had threatened to close the Quad Cities plant, but relented last year after Gov. Bruce Rauner signed bailout legislation authorizing big rate hikes.
Representatives of Exelon and its government overseers — the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the Illinois Emergency Management Agency and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency — said the leaks posed no public danger and did not contaminate drinking water. Exelon said to prevent leaks it has spent $100 million over the last decade on upgrades at all of its U.S. plants.
Michael Pacilio, chief operating officer of the power generating arm of Exelon, said no one in or around the plants was harmed by radioactivity from the leaks, which he described as minor compared with everyday exposures.
“We live in a radioactive world,” Pacilio said.
Among the 61 nuclear power plants operating in the U.S., more than half have reactors that are at or near the end of their originally expected lifespans — including the Dresden and Quad Cities plants.
Industry watchdogs and government whistleblowers contend oversight is compromised by a cozy relationship between companies and the NRC.
Government regulators concede they must balance the safety needs of aging plants, which require more maintenance, versus ordering cost-prohibitive upgrades at facilities that inherently are just a slip-up away from catastrophe.
No player in the nuclear industry is bigger than Exelon, the Chicago-based energy company that last year reported $31 billion in revenue and operates 14 nuclear plants in Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Five of the six Illinois plants reported leaks over the last decade, records show. Clinton, in DeWitt County, had no leaks and Byron, in Ogle County, reported only one that contained low levels of radioactivity.