Nuclear plants pose risks to drinking water for Illinois

January 25, 2012

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


  1. CZZZZ

    January 25, 2012 at 8:56 am

    Nuclear power is safer than fossil fuels, that’s an undeniable fact. Why would you oppose nuclear for safety concerns but then use fossil fuel generated power? Mass hysteria.

  2. Rob

    January 25, 2012 at 9:01 am

    Wind and solar energy should not be identified as viable alternatives to base load forms of generation like nuclear or fossil. The wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine. Capacity factors for wind and solar are generally less than 15%. Switching to wind and solar are only viable options if people are content to have light, refrigeration, heat, etc. only 15% of the time. People should think twice about funding charities don’t have their facts straight.

  3. Paxus Calta

    January 25, 2012 at 10:34 am

    What is important to realize is that despite the news media not covering it, Japan is phasing out nuclear power and not having an electricity shortage. Part of this is because over 7 reactors worth of renewable power is on line. Part is because the government forced conservation program has been hugely successful. THis means countries with a smaller fraction of nuclear power (like the US) could actually consider phase out, something unthinkable before Fukushima. For more details, including Japanese news stories see:

  4. Eileen Mahood-Jose

    January 25, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    Most people don’t realize that our 104 operating nuclear reactors are producing electricity because powerful turbines are being powered by steam. By this I mean that we are splitting atoms–and risking contamination of our air, food crops, water, and soil for hundreds of years with manmade elements proven to mutate genes and cause fatal cancers–to boil water.
    The author of this excellent article is quite correct in saying that safe, green, alternative energy sources are available and in use right now in other countries. Gemasol is a 24/7 solar plant with molten salt storage in Spain, and Germany has a combined energy grid already in place. Both have clips that can be viewed on YouTube.
    It’s simply a question of stopping the subsidies and loan guarantees to the nuclear industry and investing in job producing solar, wind, hydropower, biomass, and geothermal energy sources. Until we do we are risking a Fukushima-style disaster on U.S. soil–especially from any of our 23 GE Mark I reactors, identical to the crippled ones still spewing radiation in Japan.

  5. Victoria B.

    January 25, 2012 at 4:37 pm

    NEI posted a blog piece that explains the U.S. nuclear industry’s ground water protection and underground piping programs. It also debunks some of the errors in one of the report’s citations, with re: to The AP study. Check it out here:

  6. Erica Gray

    January 25, 2012 at 5:25 pm

    It’s time for an energy paradigm shift.
    We want safe clean sustainable energy ~ the kind that can’t leave parts of our country uninhabitable for ever…Nuclear NOT worth the risks!

  7. Aga44

    January 25, 2012 at 7:57 pm

    Thank you Rock River Times for this important article!

    One point to add is that radiation from Japan’s nuclear meltdowns was found in the drinking water in the U.S.! That goes to show how dangerous nuclear radiation is, as it travels globally in the air and there is no such thing as a “safe” dose of radiation.

    Nuclear power is both dangerous and filthy and it’s polluting more-and-more land, air, water, soil, and food around the world.

    For the 8.5% of nuclear energy consumed in the U.S., we could easily conserve that 8.5% and shut down these dinosaurs of old, dangerous polluters.

    Did you know that every nuclear power plant spews radiation into the environment during their daily operations, and that radiation is found in the surrounding air, water, fish, milk, vegetables, etc!

    A new study said there’s an increase in childhood leukemia in children living near nuclear power plants!

    Plus, each nuclear power plant produces 30 tons of high-level radioactive waste per YEAR! And there’s nowhere to put that waste!

    Japan’s nuclear crisis isn’t over, and if you want to stay informed on how devastating it has been to Japan and how it is affecting the rest of the world, these sites are highly recommended:

    Finally, it was good to see Dr. Epstein quoted in this article. He’s a hero for courageously voicing his concerns.

  8. Marcus

    January 30, 2012 at 5:14 pm

    We got Tritium in the air today, at Byron…

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