Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
The 400,000-gallon leak of radioactive water at the Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant is a concerning event, even as state and power plant officials work to contain it.
First, it should be noted that tritium, the active ingredient in the leak, is a weak form of radiation that, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, does not travel far and cannot penetrate human skin. According to the NRC, should tritium enter the body, it disperses quickly. The risks of exposure are short-lived, measured in days.
That said, it is disturbing that Xcel Energy officials reported the leak to state and federal regulators when it occurred — Nov. 22 of last year — but withheld the information from the public until nearly four months later. Xcel and state officials said that had there been any risk to the public, they would have disclosed it sooner.
"Tritium is a very low risk, and none of that has left the site," said Daniel Huff, assistant commissioner for health protection at the Minnesota Department of Health. "If there had been the potential of any imminent risk, we would have notified folks immediately."
By January, state officials knew that the tritium-tainted water was edging closer to the Mississippi, although still on Monticello plant grounds. Monticello city officials were alerted to the leak in February. In mid-March, a second, more minor, leak was discovered.
Finally, on March 16, the public was informed. That also was when legislators and the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission learned about it. "[Xcel] did not file anything with the PUC," the agency's Will Seuffert told an editorial writer. "We were informed when the public was informed." Seuffert said that the PUC serves as an economic regulator and typically is not involved in environmental regulatory issues.
Six days later, a monitoring well revealed that the leak had reached groundwater. The plant was then taken offline. That closure resulted in a fish kill of about 200 — not from the tritium, but from the shutdown that cut off the warmer water to which fish had grown accustomed.
Tritium leaks are not unusual at nuclear plants. But an NRC report shows that the leak at Monticello ranks among the top 10 in U.S. history. Only five others have been larger. And although levels stayed low, and no drinking water sources have been contaminated, the news should not have been kept from the public for so long.
Minnesota Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, a House climate and energy committee member, told an editorial writer that officials must always balance transparency against the potential for panic. "The fact is, tritium in water is not that big a deal," he said. "It's not uranium. It's not plutonium. It occurs naturally in the environment. It's used in sign painting.
"I'm glad they have sensors and are monitoring for this stuff. [State and plant officials] are going above and beyond what is necessary. But the reality is, it's something that sounds scary but just isn't." Garofalo said he is satisfied that the state and plant officials have taken the proper steps and are acting out of an "abundance of caution."
The point about panic is a fair one. But the same announcement made in March — with the same assurances on the low risk to the public — should have come in November.
"We have definitely heard from folks that they want us to, you know, let them know much faster. And we hear that and we get it," MDH's Huff said this month.
Some people live within a mile of that plant and depend on well water. They deserved to know sooner that an event had occurred and that tritium presented a low risk.
To do otherwise, particularly in this disinformation age, invites rumors and fosters mistrust. Homeowner Jerry Kosel told a Fox News reporter that he is concerned about his well, less than a mile from the plant. "You wonder if they're telling the truth because they didn't reveal it until now," he said.
Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, chair of the committee on Energy, Utilities, Environment and Climate, told an editorial writer that "The first information we got was that the radiation levels were not a threat. If that's true, I'm satisfied that they attempted to gauge the threat." On the disclosure side, he said, "There may be value in disclosing sooner, and the committee should discuss that." One option, he said, "is to have an informational hearing, so we can hear from regulators and plant officials and look at how we handle disclosure in the future. That is a possibility."
Garofalo noted that Minnesota heavily depends on the Monticello and Prairie Island nuclear plants, which generate 24% of the state's electrical energy. He said that working toward a carbon-free future will depend largely on our ability to create reliable, sustainable energy sources.
Newer technologies may make that more possible than ever. But it will be critical to commit to educating and informing the public in the most timely manner possible, not only about the advantages but also about potential hazards.