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Study: Nuclear plant threatens drinking water

Kristin Eide-Tollefson (center) speaks at a press conference about the effects of nuclear power plants on drinking water Wednesday at the Red Wing Public Library. Pictured in the back are (left to right) Elissa Walter, Josh Winters, Christina Mills and Natalie Cook.

A small tritium leak of 27 gallons from the Prairie Island nuclear plant Feb. 3 resulted in opportune timing for two study groups already scheduled to discuss the effects of tritium on drinking water at a press conference Wednesday.

The Environment Minnesota Research & Policy Center and the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group worked together to present "Too Close to Home: Nuclear Power and the Threat to Drinking Water."

According to the report, the drinking water for more than 935,000 people in Minnesota is within at 50 miles of an active nuclear power plant -- the same distance the Nuclear Regulatory Commission uses to measure risk to food and water supplies.

Concerns about possible contamination stem from tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen.

"One of the insidious things about tritium is it mimics hydrogen and integrates itself into the whole water cycle," said Kristin Eide-Tollefson, a member of the Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant Study Group.

Environment Minnesota and the MPIRG contend that airborne radiation following a nuclear meltdown at a plant in Fukushima, Japan, last year was able to contaminate drinking water sources more than 100 miles away from the plant. Xcel Energy responded to the claim and disputed health risks to Americans.

"An NRC task force concluded last summer that a sequence of events like those that occurred at the Japanese plant last March is unlikely to occur in the United States," said Dennis Koehl, chief nuclear officer for Xcel Energy. "Even so, we are taking steps in response to the events in Japan to make our plants even safer.

Xcel has nuclear power plants at Monticello, Minn., and Prairie Island, both of which have a groundwater monitoring program regulated by the NRC. The report pointed out that the Mississippi River provides cooling water to both plants and could be at risk for contamination if a spill were to occur again.

"This report helps brings to light the threats to millions of Americans from these routine and other non-routine releases of radioactivity at nuclear reactors across the U.S.," said Christina Mills, a scientist with the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.

"There is no scientific evidence that any member of the general public has ever been harmed by any radiation release -- including tritium -- from a U.S. nuclear power plant," Koehl refuted. "No adverse impacts on public health in the United States are identified in the U.S. PIRG/Environment America report."

While Environment Minnesota and MPIRG aren't expecting immediate changes, they would like to see the state move away from nuclear power and toward alternatives like wind and solar power. Prairie Island's two reactors are licensed to operate through 2033 and 2034.

"That's a 20-year window in which we can develop a comprehensive energy plan in Minnesota," MPIRG member Josh Winters said.

What is tritium?

Tritium is a naturally occurring form of hydrogen and is found in very small amounts in groundwater throughout the world, a fact sheet from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission states.

The chemical is produced when cosmic rays collide with air molecules. At nuclear generating plants, tritium is a byproduct of the production of electricity.

Humans can be exposed to tritium by eating or drinking food or water containing the substance, absorbing it through the skin or by inhaling it.

"Everyone is exposed to small amounts of tritium every day, because it occurs naturally in the environment and the foods we eat," the fact sheet states.

To view the entire fact sheet, visit