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Xcel Energy temporarily shutting down Monticello plant after finding another chemical leak

Xcel said the new leak is fully contained and has not been detected in any local drinking water.

MONTICELLO, Minn. — Xcel Energy will temporarily power down its Monticello nuclear plant, which leaked 400,000 gallons of a radioactive chemical late last year. 

At a briefing with reporters Friday morning Xcel President of Energy–Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota Chris Clark said the energy provider said it had been capturing the tritium-laced water and rerouting it back into the plant for re-use, but on Wednesday detected new leakage into the groundwater, which it anticipates to be in the hundreds of gallons. 

He insists the leak is fully contained and has not been detected in any local drinking water, and that Xcel is taking the extra step of powering the plant down to assure the community it is taking the situation seriously. 

"We value our relationship with the city of Monticello and its residents," Clark said Friday. "We want to be a good neighbor to this community. 

The plan to reroute the tritium-laced water from the original leak was meant to be temporary until Xcel could install a replacement for the broken pipe that caused that leak. Now, Clark says the plant will be slowly powered down over the next couple of days and allowed to cool before repair crews replace the leaking pipe, which runs between two buildings at the plant.

WATCH: Xcel Energy president shares update on tritium-laced water leak in Monticello

Clark told reporters that the defective section of the pipe will be taken to a lab and examined to see if the cause of the leak can be determined so the same scenario doesn't happen again. 

That new pipe was previously scheduled to be installed in mid-April. While the plant is down maintenance crews will replace the leaking pipe, and also run down an inspection list to see if additional work should be done. Clark says the plant is also scheduled for a bi-yearly refueling process this spring, which may also be done at this time. That would keep the plant idle a bit longer. 

Xcel doesn't have a timetable for the resumption of operations at the plant but doesn't anticipate any impact on its customer's electric service. 

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) said the new leak is still ongoing in a release Thursday night. 

"The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Minnesota Department of Health are encouraged that Xcel Energy is taking immediate action to address the recurring issue of water containing tritium leaking from the Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant," the agency said.

At this point, Clark says Xcel has only recovered approximately 32% of the released tritium and will continue the recovery process over the course of the next year.

The public was invited to attend open houses at the Monticello Community Center on Friday, March 24 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Monday, March 27. from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

John Young lives near the plant. He says Xcel not telling the community sooner burned their trust. “Why didn’t they us when it first happened in November?” Young said. “It makes you question them.”

Officials with MPCA and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) realize that with the proximity of the plant to the Mississippi River the potential for impact reaches beyond Monticello. The City of Minneapolis posted on Twitter that its water treatment and distribution operation pulls its water from the Mississippi, and assured users that MDH is monitoring water for the presence of tritium. At this point, the city says there is no evidence polluted water has reached the river.

Dr. Emily Caffrey, an expert in health physics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told KARE 11 she agrees with assessments from public health officials that the Monticello leak does not pose a risk at this point.

"It's on-site, it's not publicly accessible, so it's not a concern for public safety at this time," Caffrey said. "They've cleaned up about a third of that tritium already... so, again, [they will] watch the numbers. I expect you'll see the on-site ones decrease and I don't expect you'll see anything off-site but that's the prudent thing to do."

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