Nuclear Power Plants Threaten Drinking Water for 49 Million Americans

U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Washington, D.C. – The drinking water for 49 million Americans could be at risk of radioactive contamination from a leak or accident at a local nuclear power plant, according to a new study released today by Environment America Research & Policy Center and the US Public Interest Research Group Education Fund. See map here.

“The danger of nuclear power is too close to home. The drinking water for 49 million Americans is too close to an active nuclear power plant,” said Courtney Abrams, the Clean Energy Advocate for Environment America. “An accident like the one in Fukushima, Japan or a more routine leak could spew cancer-causing radioactive waste into our drinking water.”

The nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan last year drew a spotlight on the many risks associated with nuclear power. After the disaster, airborne radiation left areas around the plant uninhabitable, and even contaminated drinking water sources near Tokyo, 130 miles from the plant.

According to the new report, Too Close to Home: Nuclear Power and the Threat to Drinking Water,” the drinking water for 49 million Americans is within 50 miles of an active nuclear power plant – the distance the Nuclear Regulatory Commission uses to measure risk to food and water supplies.  Major cities, including New York, Boston, Philadelphia, San Diego, Cleveland and Detroit receive their drinking water from sources within 50 miles of a nuclear plant.

Radiation from a disaster like the one in Fukushima can contaminate drinking water and food supplies, as well as harm our health.  But disaster or no disaster, a common leak at a nuclear power plant can also threaten the drinking water for millions of people, and as our nuclear facilities get older, leaks are more common.  In fact, 75 percent of U.S. nuclear plants have leaked tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen that can cause cancer and genetic defects.

In the case of the Fukushima meltdown, large quantities of seawater were pumped into the plant to cool it, and contaminated seawater then leaked and was dumped back into the ocean, carrying radioactivity from the plant with it. Waterways like Lake Michigan, the Missouri River, and the Chesapeake Bay are just a few that provide cooling water for nuclear power plants and could be at risk.

“With nuclear power, there’s too much at risk and the dangers are too close to home.  Americans shouldn’t have to worry about getting cancer from drinking a glass of water,” said Jennifer Kim, Advocate for the US Public Interest Research Group Education Fund and co-author of the report.

In order to reduce the risks nuclear power poses to water supplies immediately, the groups recommend completing a thorough safety review of U.S. nuclear power plants, requiring plant operators to implement recommended changes immediately and requiring nuclear plant operators to implement regular groundwater tests in order to catch tritium leaks, among other actions.

“There are far cleaner, cheaper, and less-risky ways to get our energy,” concluded Abrams.  “The United States should move to a future without nuclear power by retiring existing plants, abandoning plans for new plants, and expanding energy efficiency and the production clean, renewable energy such as wind and solar power.

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Environment America is the federation of 29 state-based, citizen funded, organizations working toward a cleaner, greener, healthier future.

U.S. PIRG serves as the Federation of State Public Interest Research Groups. PIRGs are non-profit, non-partisan public interest advocacy groups that take on powerful interests on behalf of their members.