ATLANTA (AP) — Radioactive water has been found underneath a Southern Co. nuclear power plant in southeast Georgia, but officials said Friday that the leak does not pose an immediate threat to public health and is unlikely to contaminate any drinking water.
The Atlanta-based Southern Co. learned of the leak beneath Plant Hatch in Baxley on Wednesday when it identified radioactive tritium in two test wells about 25 feet below the ground, said Dennis Madison, a utility vice president who oversees the plant. Workers guided by ground-penetrating radar were planning to dig Friday to identify the source of the leak.
Exposure to tritium increases the risk of developing cancer. But it emits low-level radiation and leaves the body fast, making it one of the least-dangerous radioactive elements. Madison and state environmental officials say it is unlikely plant workers or residents will be exposed to the radiation because it is confined to an area within the facility and was not headed toward any drinking water supplies.
"This water is totally contained right under the industrial footprint of our plant," Madison said.
He said the utility hoped to identify the source of the leak no later than Sunday afternoon and intended to have it repaired early next week. While the size of the leak was unknown, it was enough to raise the water table in the wells about five feet. Both reactors at the site were functioning normally and showed no other signs of water loss.
"We really don't know what the rate is," Madison said. "We know it's more than a drip."
Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen that gets created as a byproduct inside nuclear reactors. It is commonly found in water. The maximum concentrations of tritium reported inside the wells was more than 200 times the limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for drinking water, according to a report that Southern Co. officials filed with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
So far, testing by the utility shows no signs that tritium from this leak has gotten into aquifers that supply drinking water or into the nearby Altamaha River, which provides cooling water for the nuclear plant. The contours of the ground would tend to move the tritium away from the nearest private well, which is roughly a mile from the site, and toward the river, said Jim Hardeman, manager of the state's environmental radiation program.
"At least as of right now, it's not making its way off the site, either to the Altamaha River or toward anyone's drinking water," Hardeman said. "The odds of this getting into anyone's drinking water are minuscule."
The plant, which started producing power more than 30 years ago, has previously suffered from tritium leaks. Southern Co. hired a consultant in the late 1970s and early 1980s to investigate earlier leaks, according to a report from the utility. In 2006, the company replaced piping and made other repairs to fix or prevent tritium leaks near where the problem was discovered this week.
NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said the agency was notified of the leak and was monitoring it.
Ray Henry can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/rhenryAP.