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A nuclear plant that leaked 400,000 gallons of radioactive water shuts down for repairs after second incident

Repairs are set to begin to fix the leaking of radioactive water from the facility this week, after a larger leak was discovered in November but only made public this month.

By Erik Ortiz

The owner of one of Minnesota’s two nuclear power plants said it will temporarily power down the facility Friday to repair a recurring leak of radioactive water discovered this week, occurring as state regulators had been monitoring the effects of an initial spill four months ago.

Cooling towers at Xcel Energy’s nuclear generating plant in Monticello, Minn., where a new leak of radioactive water was discovered this week, officials said.Evan Frost / Minnesota Public Radio via AP file

While Xcel Energy said in a news release Thursday that there is “no risk to the public or the environment” with the latest incident at the Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant, the city said it would test the municipal water supply out of precaution.

“The safety of Monticello’s residents has been and continues to be our number one priority,” Mayor Lloyd Hilgart said in a statement Friday. “We are glad Xcel Energy was closely monitoring the situation and decided to shut down the plant to make permanent repairs immediately to address the recurring issue of water containing tritium leaking from” the plant.

The company added that the leak of water containing tritium, a mildly radioactive form of hydrogen, is “fully contained on-site and has not been detected beyond the facility or in any local drinking water.” This second leak involved hundreds of gallons of radioactive water, according to the utility company, far less than the 400,000 gallons in the leak discovered in late November.

But some Monticello residents surrounding the plant — located 38 miles northwest of Minneapolis and upstream of the Mississippi River — say they have concerns about what a recurring leak presents and the delay in finding out about the initial spill.

“I think the general public needs to be informed more about this,” said Megan Sanborn, 31, who lives 6 miles upstream from the nuclear plant.

“My children go to school 2 miles downstream from the power plant,” she added. “If the water levels were safe the entire time like they were saying, then where was the transparency?”

Xcel Energy notified the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the state on Nov. 22, on the same day it confirmed the leak, as a “non-emergency report” with “no impact on the health and safety of the public or plant personnel.” It said the origin of the leak was found about a month later from a broken pipe between two buildings, and that a temporary solution was devised to contain the water and reroute it back to the plant for reuse.

In late February, the city was informed about the leak. But it wasn’t until March 16 when state officials told the public and Xcel Energy announced it had been taking steps to contain and manage the leak over the past four months.

“After the company told the state, it was a hush-hush situation,” Sanborn said. “No one from the state let residents know we had a nuclear leak, and when we don’t have the ability to overcome a potential impact because no one told us, that’s a big concern for residents.”

Xcel Energy said it has been monitoring to ensure the underground plume of tritium remains within the property and doesn’t contaminate local drinking water or the nearby Mississippi River, which every winter draws hundreds of trumpeter swans lured by the warm water discharged by the nuclear plant.

Tritium is naturally occurring in the environment but is also a result of the production of electricity at nuclear power plants, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which says it is “one of the least dangerous radionuclides because it emits very weak radiation and leaves the body relatively quick.”

In addition, it says “tritium radiation does not travel very far in air and cannot penetrate the skin.”

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