The leak was first identified in November, but authorities are only just now letting the public know.
Months after alerting environmental officials that its Monticello, Minnesota-based nuclear plant had sprung a radioactive leak, power provider Xcel Energy is finally facing public scrutiny — prompting criticism, since neither Xcel nor local officials actually brought the news to the public's attention.
As NPR reports, the leak — 400,000 gallons of water laced with tritium, a radioactive hydrogen molecule — was first identified back in November. And though the public has technically had access to the news for a while in the form of an official bulletin from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), corporate and government officials involved in the matter say that they kept the development quiet so they could investigate the scope of the leak in peace.
"We knew there was a presence of tritium in one monitoring well," Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) spokesman Michael Rafferty told the Associated Press, "however Xcel had not yet identified the source of the leak and its location."
"Now that we have all the information about where the leak occurred, how much was released into groundwater, and that contaminated groundwater had moved beyond the original location, we are sharing this information," he added, noting that the contaminated water has been contained to Xcel-owned land and doesn't pose any concerns to human health.
To be fair, as far as accidental radioactive waste goes, tritium is relatively lower-risk. In fact, according to an NRC fact sheet, everyone is "exposed to small amounts of tritium every day, because it occurs naturally in the environment and the foods we eat." Xcel reportedly maintains that the leaked tritium levels fall below NRC toxicity guidelines.
That said, radioactive leaks are never a net positive, and though secrecy may have staved off bad press during the investigation and containment process, it could well be argued that choosing to forgo transparency in cases like this sows more suspicion than it does trust. It can't be fun for locals to know that information was being withheld — whether the substance in question ultimately causes extensive, minimal, or even zero harm.
"While this leak does not pose a risk to the public or the environment, we take this very seriously and are working to safely address the situation," Chris Clark, president of Xcel Energy–Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, said in the company's statement. "We continue to gather and treat all potentially affected water while regularly monitoring nearby groundwater sources."
More on radioactive accidents: Miners Say "Sorry" For Losing Highly Radioactive Object along Highway
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