DHEC to test wells around Catawba Nuclear Station

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control will be testing today for radioactive tritium in about 30 wells around the Catawba Nuclear Station on Lake Wylie.

The testing comes after the Duke Energy-owned station discovered one of 30 new wells at the plant had tritium levels twice as high as the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe for drinking water.

DHEC spokeswoman Mary Nguyen Bright said testing should be completed in the afternoon, and results should be available in about three weeks.

"It's just preventative because we're wanting to make sure that there isn't any indication that it's gotten off site," Bright said.

There's no need to panic, Duke Energy officials say. The well containing the tritium was not a source for drinking water. It was put at the site for the sole purpose of testing groundwater, said Valerie Patterson, Duke spokeswoman.

There has been no indication that tritium has spread outside Duke property, Patterson said.

Duke Energy was still investigating the leak's origins on Thursday.

Here's more information about tritium and what residents can do to feel safe.

Just what is tritium?

Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen that occurs naturally when cosmic rays collide with air molecules. It's also formed as a byproduct of nuclear plants to help control heat. Tritium emits a weak form of radiation that could increase risk of cancer or cause birth defects if consumed in large quantities. Some experts, however, have said tritium can be used to foreshadow the eventual flow of more toxic radioactive materials in groundwater.

Has this happened before?

This is the first-known tritium leak at the York station, but it has happened at six other nuclear plants outside the Carolinas in recent years. There was no threat to public health in each incident.

How much tritium-contaminated water would I have to consume before I'm in danger?

A lot. It would take a significant amount of tritium over a long period of time to be harmful. The EPA says it is safe to drink water with 20,000 picocuries per liter, assuming that a person drinks two liters a day for a year. That amount of radiation from 20,000 picocuries would be about a third of the radiation you're exposed to from one chest X-ray.

If I live downstream from the Catawba Nuclear Plant and own a well, is there anything I should do now to ensure safety?

There isn't much to do now other than give DHEC permission to test your water. If your well tests positive, you should still be OK because the three weeks it will take for test results to come back isn't long enough to consume significant amounts of tritium.

Should I have taken my KI pill?

No. The KI pill (potassium iodine pill) is designed to protect your thyroid from absorbing radioactive iodine. KI should only be taken in the event of a nuclear emergency, when directed by health officials.

Would it do any good for me to boil my water?

No, boiling water may actually increase your risk, because when the water is boiled, steam may make the tritium airborne. If you're concerned about possible contamination, your best bet may be to drink bottled water and wait until your water is tested.

Can I test my own water?

Yes, there are private companies across the region that will test your water, but DHEC is testing water for free in the at-risk areas. If you think you're in an at-risk area, call DHEC at (800) 476-9677 to request a test.

What happens if tritium is found outside the Catawba Nuclear Plant?

If tritium is found outside of the plant, DHEC will continue to test to see how far out the water is contaminated. Water sources deemed unsafe to drink will likely be restricted and owners would have to look for alternative sources.

Is it likely this tritium will end up in the Catawba River system?

No. This particular tritium was found in groundwater that doesn't move very far. It was found in just one well.

-- Sources: Duke Energy, DHEC, EPA