Nuclear Power Plants Threaten Drinking Water for Tens of Thousands of Rhode Islanders

Media Contacts
Channing Jones

Hundreds of Thousands More also at Potential Risk

Environment Rhode Island Research & Policy Center

Providence— The drinking water for tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people in Rhode Island could be at risk of radioactive contamination from a leak or accident at a local nuclear power plant, says a new study released today by Environment Rhode Island Research & Policy Center and Rhode Island PIRG Education Fund.

“The danger of nuclear power is too close to home. Here in Rhode Island, the drinking water supply of far too many people is too close to an active nuclear power plant,” said Channing Jones, Field Associate with Environment Rhode Island. “An accident like the one in Fukushima, Japan, or even simply a 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 intakes of water supplies for nearly 65,000 people in Rhode Island are within 50 miles of an active nuclear power plant—the distance the Nuclear Regulatory Commission uses to measure risk to food and water supplies.

Environment Rhode Island Research & Policy Center cautioned that this figure—based on Environmental Protection Agency data—while alarming itself, vastly underestimates the true threat in Rhode Island. The study covers drinking water intakes for public drinking water systems within 50 miles of nuclear power plants connected to the grid. Although the Scituate Reservoir intake does not according to available data fall into this radius, the bulk of the reservoir’s surface water in fact lies just less than 50 miles from the Millstone plant in southeastern Connecticut. The Scituate reservoir supplies the water for hundreds of thousands of Rhode Islanders: roughly 60 percent of the state’s population.

Environment Rhode Island Research & Policy Center also noted that EPA data used in the report do not include smaller reactors unconnected to the grid, such as the research reactor at the University of Rhode Island.

“Any radiation exposure from a nuclear plant would increase the risk of cancer and other illnesses,” cautioned former State Representative Ray Rickman, also a former Deputy Secretary of State and an outspoken advocate against nuclear power.

Radiation from a disaster like the one in Fukushima can contaminate drinking water and food supplies, as well as harm human health. And even without a disaster, a common leak at a nuclear power plant can also threaten drinking water supplies. As nuclear facilities age, 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.

“With nuclear power, there’s too much at risk and the dangers are too close to home,” added Jones. “Rhode Islanders shouldn’t have to worry about getting cancer from drinking a glass of water.”

The report recommends that the United States moves 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.

In order to reduce the risks nuclear power poses to water supplies immediately, the report recommends 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. 

“Our drinking water is too important to risk radiation contamination,” said Rickman. “Rhode Island and neighboring states must strive to be nuke-free.”

“There are far cleaner, cheaper, and less-risky ways to get our energy,” concluded Jones.  “We should move away from nuclear power immediately and invest in safer alternatives such as efficiency and wind and solar power.”