ABC11 Investigates

Reactor leak causes concern for some at NC State

Monday, September 10, 2012

The ABC11 I-Team has uncovered new details about a leak at a local nuclear reactor.

However, it's not the reactor at the Shearon Harris nuclear plant, but the one used for research on the campus of N.C. State.

Last year, the reactor started leaking and it took two weeks to find the leak and repair it. However, what has not been reported is where exactly all that radioactive water ended up.  

An I-Team investigation revealed more than 3,500 gallons of water protecting up to 30 pounds of uranium dioxide leaked from a small hole in N.C. State's nuclear reactor, into the ground, while shutdown in July 2011.

The leak was caused by human error, according to the university.

According to a filing with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it took 14 days to repair.

The university waited six days to notify the public and nearby students of the leak, but never disclosed how much leaked or where it went.

"It's unsettling that we weren't, to be honest," said NCSU student Ellen Furby.

The Pulstar reactor is at the center of N.C. State's main campus, surrounded by classrooms.

"I know I fill up my water bottle here every day, and things like that," said Furby.  "And if it's in the ground, then it definitely seems like something we should be aware of."        

"Part of the reason we'd like to know is because it could potentially affect us," said NCSU student Sebastian Fernandez Giraldo.

One of the closest dorms is North Hall on Hillsborough Street, which is home to as many as 246 students.

"I think that folks living around there do need to know what's happening there," said Jim Warren, who is the head of Durham-based NC WARN. "The combination of the amount of leakage and the duration leaves a question about what would've happened if that leakage had worsened."

University scientists said the leaked water likely posed no health risk. They don't touch it themselves when it's concentrated and contained in their tank. They said, however, when it slowly leaked into the ground, the radioactivity in the water would have been diluted to safe levels.

EPA testing seems to back that up. Soil samples, air samples, and water samples from nearby Rocky Branch Creek all showing no spike in radiation levels.

Dr. Ayman Hawari oversees the university's research reactor, which is one of only two in the Southeast. It's only a fraction of the size of a commercial reactor.

Hawari said the reactor provides invaluable hands-on experience for students, researchers and faculty into cutting-edge science like anti-matter.

"I think the reactor has been a feather in the cap of N.C. State University and the general state of North Carolina," said Hawari.

However, critics like Warren said even these smaller reactors can be unsafe.

"Any amount of nuclear fuel that is undergoing a fission process is a dangerous reactor core," said Warren.

University officials said they do take safety seriously and notified federal authorities of the leak even though they weren't required to by law.

"That's a signal there -- that it reached a threshold hold of concern that did require local reporting," said Warren.

Hawari said safety is always priority one.

"It is troubling to us, and we don't want it to happen also," said Hawari.

However, it has happened more than once. There were two similar leaks at N.C. State back in 1988 and 1993.

"Any machine that operates could develop a small leak; piping system has water running through it. It can happen," said Hawari. "I would say the probabilities [of leaks] are small, but life is all probabilities. You could have an event with anything you do."

So how can the public be assured that the reactor's safe?

"The incidents are easy to pinpoint because they are happening against a clean background," said Hawari. "You look at the safety records we have. You will see that our safety record has been quite good over the years."

ABC11 did look at the records for the 40-year-old facility and found seven federal citations. Two came in 2010 when a technician was accidentally exposed to a high level of radiation. Five citations were issued in 1998 when radioactive material was put in an unmarked refrigerator.

Despite those incidents, and last year's leak, the NRC said they have no major concerns about the nuclear reactor.

More Information

Click here for a link to calculate your radiation dosage.

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nc state, abc11 investigates, steve dorsey
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