Is Congress listening about the news that an estimated three-quarters of the country's nuclear sites have leaky pipes?

Two top elected officials have heard the news, and they are demanding the federal government do something about leaky pipes at these sites.

Representatives Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee and Ranking Member on the Natural Resources Committee, and Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), chief deputy Democratic whip, just put out a negative report from the Government Accountability Office report that says that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and licensees must do more to stop leaky pipes at nuclear reactor sites.

Worse, no one in government knows how serious the problem is, and the GAO says it can't figure out the problem, either, because the information is insufficient.

This is a fire-engine red alert problem, the Congressmen say. "Buried pipes at nuclear power plants carry water necessary to cool nuclear reactors. Other buried pipes carry diesel to fuel the emergency generators that power cooling systems in case of a blackout," they note in a statement.

The GAO said in its report that it cannot be assured that underground safety-related pipes remain structurally sound without having information about degradation that has occurred."

It added that "without such assurance, the likelihood of future pipe failures cannot be as accurately assessed, and this increases the uncertainty surrounding the safety of the plants.  

A recent story from he Associated Press found that a radioactive form of hydrogen, tritium, has been spewing  from at least 48 of 65 nuclear sites, based on records from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The story noted that at least 37 of those facilities that had leaking pipes, groundwater concentrations exceeded "the federal drinking water standard, up to hundreds of times the limit," the congressmen n oted in a statement.

And then one of the congressmen made this statement: 

Just as a power outage was the root cause of the core meltdowns at Fukushima, a failure of buried pipes that carry cooling water to the reactor cores could lead to a similar emergency here in the U.S., said Rep. Markey. There would be no warning because no one ever checks the integrity of these underground pipes. These pipes have more leaks than the Vancouver Canucks goaltending. The NRC must require inspections of these pipes before they deteriorate instead of its current policy of crossing fingers and hoping for the best.
 
The congressmen also point to a May 2009 letter to the NRC, where both Rep. Markey and then-Rep. John Hall had asked for more information as to how the NRC inspected buried pipes. 

Moreover, the congressmen wanted to know whether the NRC could assure the public "that underground pipes would withstand an earthquake, terrorist attack or other event."

The congressmen at the time pointed to an incident that occurred on February 16, 2009, where "a 1.5-inch hole that had already leaked more than 100,000 gallons of water was discovered in a buried cooling water pipe at the Indian Point nuclear power plant near New York City," according to the statement.

The broken pipe, the congressmen said, had not been inspected since 1973, when the reactor was built. The pipe reportedly was part of the facility's "primary cooling system, which must cool the reactor during any unexpected shutdown," the elected officials note.
 
And Reps. Markey and Welch point out these findings from the GAO report:

 

  • The occurrence of leaks at nuclear power plants from underground piping systems is expected to continue as nuclear power plants age and their piping systems corrode.
  • The pressure and flow tests NRC currently requires do not provide information about the structural integrity of an underground pipe, such as whether the pipe has degraded to the point that the thickness of its wall could hinder the pipes future performance.
  • Limitations in the industrys ability to measure the wall thickness of an underground pipe without excavation prevent licensees from determining the structural integrity of underground piping systems. Without being able to identify that an underground piping systems structural integrity has not been compromised by corrosion, the risk to public health and safety is increased. In this context, licensees at nuclear power plants cannot assure that a safety-related pipe will continue to function properly between inspection intervals, thereby protecting the publics health and safety.

The congressmen note that the GAO also recommended that the NRC should:
 
"Determine whether the agency should expand its groundwater monitoring requirements."

"Determine whether it should expand licensees inspection requirements to include structural integrity tests for safety-related underground piping."

Elizabeth MacDonald joined FOX Business Network (FBN) as stocks editor in September 2007.
Follow Elizabeth MacDonald on Twitter @LizMacDonaldFOX.