Nuclear plants pose risks to drinking water for Illinois

Staff Report

CHICAGO — The drinking water for 652,000 people in Illinois could be at risk of radioactive contamination from a leak or accident at a local nuclear power plant, says a new study released Jan. 24 by the Illinois Public Interest Research Group Education Fund (Illinois PIRG).

Brian Imus, Illinois PIRG state director, explained: “The danger of nuclear power is too close to home. Nuclear power plants in Illinois pose a risk to drinking water for more than 600,000 Illinoisans. An accident like the one in Fukushima, Japan, or a leak could spew cancer-causing radioactive waste into our drinking water.”

The nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, last year drew a spotlight on the many risks associated with nuclear power. After the disaster, airborne radiation left areas around the plant uninhabitable, and even contaminated drinking water sources near Tokyo, 130 miles from the plant.

According to the new report, “Too Close to Home: Nuclear Power and the Threat to Drinking Water,” the drinking water for 652,00 people in Illinois is within 50 miles of an active nuclear power plant — the distance the Nuclear Regulatory Commission uses to measure risk to food and water supplies.

Dr. Sam Epstein, a medical doctor and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, said: “This is an important study that underscores the dramatic risks nuclear plants pose to our health. Any radiation from a nuclear plant in Illinois would increase the risk of cancer and other serious illnesses.”

Radiation from a disaster like the one in Fukushima can contaminate drinking water and food supplies, as well as harm our health. But disaster or no disaster, a common leak at a nuclear power plant can also threaten the drinking water for millions of people. As our nuclear facilities get older, leaks are more common. In fact, 75 percent of U.S. nuclear plants have leaked tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen that can cause cancer and genetic defects.

In December 2005, investigators found tritium in a drinking water well at a home near Braidwood Nuclear Generating Station in Illinois. Levels of tritium above the safe drinking water standard were found near the plant, and much higher levels were detected on the plant grounds. The leak was eventually traced to a pipe carrying normally non-radioactive water away for discharge.

David Kraft, director of the Chicago-based Nuclear Energy Information Service, a nuclear power watchdog organization, said: “Tritium should be considered a major problem issue with nuclear plants. Especially among the Great Lakes region’s 33 nuclear reactors, and especially with the Canadian CANDU reactors, which belch out many more times the tritium than do the U.S. reactors.”

Local bodies of water also play a critical role in cooling nuclear reactors and are at risk of contamination. In the case of the Fukushima meltdown, large quantities of seawater were pumped into the plant to cool it, and contaminated seawater then leaked and was dumped back into the ocean, carrying radioactivity from the plant with it. The Mississippi River provides cooling water for the Quad Cities Nuclear Plant in Illinois and could be at risk.

With nuclear power, there’s too much at risk and the dangers are too close to home,” Imus said. “Illinoisans shouldn’t have to worry about getting cancer from drinking a glass of water.”

The report recommends the United States moves to a future without nuclear power by retiring existing plants, abandoning plans for new plants, and expanding energy efficiency and the production of clean, renewable energy such as wind and solar power.

To reduce the risks nuclear power poses to water supplies immediately, the report recommends completing a thorough safety review of U.S. nuclear power plants, requiring plant operators to implement recommended changes immediately and requiring nuclear plant operators to implement regular groundwater tests to catch tritium leaks, among other actions.

There are far cleaner, cheaper and less-risky ways to get our energy,” said Max Muller with Environment Illinois. “Illinois and the United States should move away from nuclear power immediately and invest in safer alternatives such as efficiency and wind and solar power.”

The Illinois PIRG Education Fund is a nonprofit, nonpartisan consumer advocacy group. Visit

Environment Illinois Research and Policy Center is a statewide citizen-based environmental group working for clean air, clean water, and open spaces. Visit

From the Jan. 25-31, 2012, issue

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