Indian Point and federal regulatory officials confirmed yesterday that recent samplings of five underground wells around Indian Point 2 turned up trace amounts of tritium, a hydrogen isotope that may be carried in water that has been leaking from a spent-fuel storage tank since at least late August.

Officials for Entergy Nuclear Northeast, which owns the two working reactors at the Buchanan site, said the levels of tritium found are well below the amount allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency for drinking water and do not pose a threat to the public or to workers at the site.

Tritium most commonly is found in self-illuminating watches or exit signs and gives off a relatively weak radiation that can increase the risk of cancer.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials confirmed the concentrations of tritium found so far and participated in a multi-agency conference call yesterday in which Entergy detailed its plans to determine the cause of the leak and the effect of it on the surrounding area. Initially, the leak amounted to half a liter per day. Since the company changed its water collection system, the amount collected daily is about two liters.

The company plans to take the following steps

• Drilling and testing eight more wells on the site around Indian Point 2, starting in about a month.

• Inspecting the liner of the spent-fuel pool, first with underwater cameras and then maybe with a diver who will descend into the pool to look for cracks. That should begin in the next two weeks.

• Developing a mitigation plan for the leak within two months that may include capturing the leaking water and having it removed from the site.

Local elected and emergency officials, who initially were upset that it took weeks for Entergy to notify them about the leak, said they want some answers.

C.J. Miller, a spokeswoman for Rockland County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef, said Vanderhoef is especially concerned that an earlier test sample closer to the reactor showed tritium concentrations 10 times higher than the acceptable levels.

“Even though it’s on Indian Point property, it’s located in a densely populated area and right on the banks of the Hudson River,” Miller said.

She said Rockland officials asked for testing of the river’s water during the conference call yesterday and supported Westchester County’s request to involve the state Department of Environmental Conservation immediately.

“Any level of contamination in the groundwater is unacceptable,” Miller said. “Plus, we have no idea how long this has been going on.”

Officials from Entergy and the NRC said yesterday they were open to the DEC and other state agencies monitoring the leak.

“Everyone is welcome to check the work we’re doing,” said Jim Steets, an Entergy spokesman.

What is tritium?

• Tritium is a radioactive isotope of the element hydrogen. It is naturally produced in the upper atmosphere when cosmic rays strike air molecules and as a byproduct in nuclear reactors that produce electricity.

• It readily forms water when exposed to oxygen and almost always is found as “tritiated” water. It primarily enters the body when people swallow tritiated water. People also may inhale tritium as a gas in the air or absorb it through their skin.

• Once tritium enters the body, it quickly disperses and is uniformly distributed.

• As with all ionizing radiation, exposure to tritium increases the risk of developing cancer. However, tritium is one of the least dangerous radionuclides because it emits very weak radiation and leaves the body relatively quickly. Since tritium almost always is found as water, it goes directly into soft tissues and organs. The associated dose to these tissues generally is uniform and dependent on the tissues’ water content.

• People are exposed to small amounts of tritium every day. It is widely dispersed in the environment and in the food chain.

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