Monticello nuclear plant to be temporarily shut down Friday to fix leak

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Xcel Energy will power down the Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant on Friday to fix a new leak of radioactive water from one of the facility’s pipes.

Xcel, which owns the plant, says the first leak was discovered in November and was immediately reported to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Once the source of the leak was found in mid-December, a temporary solution was put in place to recapture the water for reuse at the plant. However, the leak was not reported to the public until last week.

But on Wednesday, Xcel discovered that some of the contaminated water was spilling and reaching the groundwater, spurring the utility company to shut down the plant to make permanent repairs.

RELATED: Monticello plans to test city water as precaution after leak at nuclear generating plant

In a news release Thursday, Xcel said the leakage over the past two days was estimated to be “in the hundreds of gallons,” a stark contrast to the more than 400,000 gallons that had escaped while Xcel worked to pinpoint the leak, which turned out to be in a pipe leading between two buildings.

Officials say the water contains tritium, a slightly radioactive form of hydrogen that occurs as a byproduct of the nuclear reactor.

The utility company said the shutdown is necessary to replace the pipe, and while it’s not expected to affect customers’ electricity service, it’s unclear when the plant will be back up and running.

On top of the emergency repairs, the plant was already scheduled to undergo refueling, maintenance and construction this spring, all of which can only happen while the plant is dormant, the company said.

Risk to drinking water?

State regulators and Xcel maintain that none of the tritium-contaminated water left the nuclear plant site and that the leak did not reach the Mississippi River nor affect drinking water.

“Most private wells that are anywhere near the plant are quite a way from where the plume is,” said Doug Schultz, a Minnesota Department of Health spokesperson. “The movement of the plume is away from private drinking water wells.”

MDH is not testing private wells, but the agency has created a list of resources for community members who wish to test their water.

“When we get an indication there is a threat to private drinking water sources, then we will step in and say, ‘Hey, we have an indication this contamination is moving in this direction, and you should test private wells,’” said Schultz, who explained this incident has not reached that threshold.

“We don’t believe that new leak created any additional concerns for health,” he added. “The plume is contained right now on the site. There’s no threat to drinking water sources.”

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency applauded Xcel’s decision to shut the plant down earlier than planned and said there continues to be no reason to believe there is a risk to the surrounding community.

“State agencies have no evidence at this point to indicate a current or imminent risk to the public and will continue to monitor groundwater samples,” the MPCA said in a statement. “Should an imminent risk arise, we will inform the public promptly.”

As of Thursday, Xcel said it had recovered 32% of the tritium released from the plant. Cleanup efforts will continue for some time to come.

Community demands answers

Xcel Energy held an open house with the community on Friday to discuss the leaks. Residents raised concerns about whether the tritium could reach the water supply. 

“They have what, 30% [recovered], they said? Well, there’s still 70% out there, and we’re melting, and water is running this time of year,” said John Young, who has lived in Monticello for years. 

Young was also critical about the length of time it took the company to locate the leak, which was first detected in mid-November, according to Xcel. 

“It’s very concerning,” said Young. “If something more serious were to happen, this could go on for a long time.”

Residents questioned Chris Clark, the regional president of Xcel Energy, about why they weren’t immediately notified about the leak in mid-November.

“It was just kept quiet,” said Marty Hackenmueller, Young’s neighbor. “Just because they legally could wait to tell us doesn’t mean morally they should have.”

During a press conference Friday morning, Clark said, “We have an opportunity to do a better job being transparent with our neighbors and that’s certainly a lesson we take from this.”

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