BUCHANAN — Federal regulators hope a new task force will determine whether the release of radioactive tritium at nuclear plants like Indian Point is part of a national trend and requires changes in oversight policy.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission yesterday announced the fact-finding panel, made up of 11 agency experts and one from a yet-to-be-determined state, to examine the issue of accidental, unmonitored releases of tritium from the nation’s 103 plants.

“Indian Point is a factor in deciding to do this,” NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said. “There are four locations that have had tritium contamination discovered in recent months, and Indian Point is one of those. The other three are in the Midwest.”

The NRC is still in the midst of a special investigation into the source of the Indian Point tritium leak, which plant and agency officials believe originates from a spent-fuel storage pool that contains about 400,000 gallons of radioactive water.

The fact-finding panel is expected to complete its report by Aug. 31 and will look at some of these issues

• the potential public-health impact from tritium releases;

• how the releases were communicated to the public, state and local officials, federal agencies, Congress, and others;

• other inadvertent releases at nuclear power plants, including decommissioning sites, from 1996 to the present;

• industry action in response to the releases, including the timing of remediation efforts;

• and NRC oversight of accidental releases.

Jim Steets, a spokesman for Entergy Nuclear Northeast, which owns Indian Point, said the company would offer whatever help it could to the task force.

“To the extent that we can provide information or lessons learned to the NRC for use at other sites, about our efforts to ensure there are no health impacts to our workers or the public, we will gladly do so,” he said.

Philip Musegaas, a policy analyst for the environmental group Riverkeeper, commended the NRC for looking into the matter, but said it was a continuation of the federal government’s reactive approach to problems instead of taking steps to anticipate them.

“This is a further sign that their plants are poorly maintained and aging badly,” Musegaas said. “They say there’s no threat to public safety, but they know very little right now about how much of this stuff is leaking and the scope of the contamination at Indian Point.”

Musegaas said tritium releases elsewhere stemmed from problems other than spent-fuel pools, such as discharge canals and underground pipes.

The NRC will hold two public meetings March 28 at Crystal Bay on the Hudson at Charles Point Marina in Peekskill. A 2:30 p.m. meeting will address the agency’s annual assessment of Indian Point’s operations; a 6:30 p.m. meeting is planned to focus on the leak in the spent-fuel pool.

Last week, federal regulators released a preliminary report on the leak, which began in August. Since then, monitoring has found signs of contaminated water moving toward the Hudson River.

NRC spokesman Sheehan reiterated the agency’s position that there is no threat to public safety, that the tritium remains on the Indian Point site and that company officials have properly drilled test wells to determine the extent of the underground release.

“But we still don’t know the source of the leak,” he said.

Sheehan said the NRC had created a page on its Web site to provide the public the latest available information on tritium issues. That page is at www.nrc.gov/reactors/operating/ops-experience/grndwtr-contam-tritium.html.

What is tritium?

Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that is produced naturally in the upper atmosphere and can be found as a gas, but most commonly occurs in water, which is formed when tritium is exposed to oxygen. It also is produced during nuclear weapons’ explosions and in reactors. Nuclear regulators say a person would “have to consume a lot for a long time in order to see significant health effects.”

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