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Contaminated water from a leak last year at the Oyster Creek Nuclear Power Plant has reached the aquifer beneath New Jersey that supplies most of the drinking water for southern part of the state.

The discovery that radioactive tritium has seeped into The Kirkwood–Cohansey Aquifer prompted the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) to announce that the state is opening a new investigation into the 2009 leak at the power plant in Lacey Township, NJ. The NJDEP has evidence that the contamination level is 50 times higher than the allowable standards.

Tritium occurs naturally in the environment in tiny amounts and is a by-product of nuclear power plant operations. Tritium can increase a person’s risk of cancer if they inhale, ingest or absorb it through the skin.

NJDEP says 180,000 gallons of contaminated water flowed from two small holes in separate pipes at the plant on April 9, 2009. The agency has issued a Spill Act directive to the Exelon Corporation, the owner of the power plant, requiring the company to cooperate with investigators and take action to stop the radioactive substance from reaching drinking water supplies.

The NJDEP told The Washington Post that if the state must step in and stop the spread of the contamination, it would bill Exelon Corp. three times the cleanup cost as a penalty.

“There is a problem here,’’ DEP Commissioner Bob Martin said in a press release. “I am worried about the continuing spread of the tritium into the groundwater and its gradual moving towards wells in the area. The DEP must identify the risk and determine how to deal with the problem. This is not something that can wait. That would be unacceptable.”

According to the New Jersey Geological Survey, the Kirkwood–Cohansey Water-table Aquifer is especially vulnerable to contamination because it lacks protective confining layers that prevent contaminants from vertically draining into the aquifer from the surface above. Once a contaminant reaches the aquifer, high permeability allows the substance to spread quickly throughout the aquifer.

The NJDEP says there is no immediate threat to private or public drinking water supplies. The flow of the radioactive tritium water has been monitored and moving at a rate of one to three feet per day. They estimate it would take about 14 years for the contaminated water to reach the closest residential well nearly two miles away.

“As a result, I am calling for a new investigation and am planning to put an action plan together with Exelon for a long-term solution,” said Commissioner Martin. “We have an obligation to protect the groundwater for residents of this state. While there is no imminent public health threat, we must act to ensure such a threat does not occur.”

At the time of the spill in 2009, the federal government’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) who oversees nuclear power plant operation did not order a cleanup.

In the press release, NJDEP criticized the actions of Exelon Corporation, not believing them “timely or extensive enough.”

“We have determined there is a need for more immediate action to compel Exelon to act,’’ said Commissioner Martin.

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