“ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) – Spurred by recurring leaks of radioactive water from the nation’s oldest nuclear power plant, federal regulators say they’re looking for better ways to detect leaks from buried pipes at all 104 American nuclear power plants.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has told its staff to consider whether programs to find underground leaks need to be improved.

The agency acted after responding to two leaks of radioactive tritium at the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in Lacey Township, N.J. this year.

The first was spotted just days after the NRC gave Oyster Creek a new 20-year license; it will be 60 years old when the license expires.

The NRC says tritium is entering a discharge canal leading to a fragile New Jersey shore bay, but at undetectable levels.

The NRC could not immediately provide an estimate of how many other plants have been affected by leaking underground pipes, but Sheehan said similar incidents have occurred. The Indian Point 2 nuclear plant in Buchanan, N.Y., experienced a similar leak in February that allowed about 100,000 gallons of tritium-tainted water to enter the groundwater supply and recently at the Braidwood Generating Station in Will County, Ill. The later plant is owned by Exelon Corp., which also owns Oyster Creek.

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko issued a memo on Sept. 3 directing the agency’s staff to study whether existing programs aimed at detecting underground leaks are working well enough to find and prevent them.

He told agency staff to come up with a study within 90 days of current policies regarding buried pipes, and possible recommendations to improve the likelihood that leaks are not occurring.

Neil Sheehan, an NRC spokesman, said it has not been determined whether the review will result in physical inspections of buried pipes at each nuclear plant.

Word of the review came during a conference call with reporters in which agency officials discussed their investigation into two leaks of radioactive tritium at Oyster Creek. One was discovered in April, just days after the plant won a controversial 20-year license extension. The other occurred last month in a different area of the plant.

John White, a branch chief in the agency’s division of reactor safety who led a federal investigation into the spills, said the tritium contaminated underground water on the plant grounds.

Some of the tainted groundwater is leaking into a discharge canal, where it is diluted by vast amounts of water before making its way into Barnegat Bay, he said.

The tritium is entering the canal at levels too low to be detected at a highway bridge a few hundred yards from the plant, White said.

“We test that canal every day and we haven’t found anything yet,” added David Benson, a plant spokesman.

White and other NRC officials could not estimate how long it might take for the tainted groundwater to work its way out of the area and dissipate.

But White said drinking water in the area remains safe, and people who enjoy the bay and the creek are not in danger.

“There would be no impact on public safety for people that fish, crab or swim in that area,” he said.

Jeff Tittel, president of the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter, said testing by an independent laboratory is needed to ensure that Oyster Creek does not endanger public safety.”

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