MONTICELLO, Minn. — A chemical leak at Xcel Energy's nuclear power plant in Monticello set into motion a chain of events that is impacting more than human life.
The temporary shutdown of the plant, due to at least two leaks of water containing the radioactive element Tritium, is now being blamed for a fish kill on the Mississippi River. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) says at least 230 fish died due to a change in water temperature in the Mississippi River.
MPCA says during normal operations, the power plant discharges warm water into the river that area fish become used to. With operations idled, temperatures in the Mississippi cool, shocking the systems of the fish. Those killed include bass, channel catfish, common carp, and one or more species of sucker fish.
State officials emphasize that the fish kill is not due to the presence of Tritium.
Dr. Trevor Keyler is a visiting assistant professor in the Biology Department at College of St. Benedict and St. John's University located north of St. Cloud.
"If we're looking at a larger ecosystem, it's not a big deal," Keyler said. "If it's a very small, contained area, that might have some resonating effects kind of like you hit on within the food web... Basically, who eats whom. If you're removing that top level of fish, that kind of releases the pressure on the next level. Maybe that's insect larvae so then they multiply and then they eat more at the next level."
"Human activities are impacting the environment in small and large ways, and so any change in what humans are doing is impactful in aquatic ecosystems, for better or worse. And so we need to understand those impacts so we can anticipate them and possibly do things better," added Jacques Finlay, an ecology, evolution and behavior professor in the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota. "It sounded like they were trying to avoid some of the negative impacts and maybe they were partially successful."
The decision to shut down the Monticello plant came last week following the announcement of a second leak at the plant. Xcel Energy said crews will replace a faulty water pipe that runs between two buildings on the plant site, and perform additional maintenance while the operation is down.
MPCA and the Minnesota Department of Health are monitoring samples taken from groundwater wells, and say to this point they have no evidence that the tritium has reached the Mississippi River or contaminated drinking water sources in and around Monticello.
The first leak at the plant was discovered in November, when 400,000 gallons (1.5 million liters) of water with tritium leaked into the river. There was a monthslong delay in announcing the initial leak that raised questions about public safety and transparency, but industry experts said there was never a public health threat.
A new leak found last week came from a temporary repair to the original leak, the company said. Chris Clark, president of Xcel Energy–Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, said the new leak also poses no risk to the public or the environment.
Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that occurs naturally in the environment and is a common by-product of nuclear plant operations. It emits a weak form of beta radiation that does not travel far and cannot penetrate human skin, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
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