MONTPELIER – More radioactive fish were discovered in the Connecticut River in April, but state health officials say the discovery is not linked to the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.
The Vermont Department of Health announced late last Friday that testing of fish in the Connecticut River has again turned up traces of strontium-90, a radioactive isotope linked to leukemia and other cancers.
In a press release last Friday, Health officials said the concentrations of the isotope are within "background levels" and are not linked to the nuclear power plant, which uses water from the river to run through its condenser.
"Concentrations of Sr-90 detected in the inedible portions of these fish are in the range of what would be expected as a result of fallout from nuclear weapons testing in the 1950s, and the Chernobyl release in 1986," the Health Department said in a prepared statement.
Vermont health officials announced in late May that a fish found four miles upstream from the Vernon nuclear power plant had tested positive for strontium-90. That announcement came days after Vermont Yankee officials admitted their plant was leaking strontium-90.
Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster, the chairman of the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee and the river steward of the Connecticut River Watershed Council, agreed with state officials that the amount of strontium-90 found was within "background levels."
"It's not surprising," Deen said. "We've been poisoning ourselves with radioactivity since we discovered how to manipulate atoms."
Deen said he wants more tests done on fish samples taken from the river, including testing for cobalt-60 or cesium-137 – two identifiers that would link radioactive pollution in the water to the nuclear power plant.
"If that shows up, then we'll have something to talk about," he said.
William Irwin, the state's radiological health chief, was not available for comment Monday, which was a holiday for state employees. A message left on his cell phone also was not returned.
But according to information released late last Friday by his office, the fish samples – it was not clear how many tested positive for strontium-90 – were removed from the river in April. Vermont Yankee reported the findings to the state on June 30.
Fish taken from the Vernon pool had 70 picocuries per kilogram of the isotope, the Health Department said. Fish taken about five miles upstream near the Route 9 bridge had findings of 100 picocuries pr kilogram.
The state said the normal "background" levels for strontium-90 are between 120-360 picocuries per kilogram. Officials typically test the bones of fish – referred to as the "inedible portions" of the fish in the Health Department's release – because that is where the isotope collects.
"Because the Sr-90 results are all within what is considered to be the normal 'background' range, and because no Sr-90 has been measured above the lower limit of detection in groundwater on site at the plant, the Health Department considers it unlikely that these findings in fish are a result of recent events at Vermont Yankee," the official release stated.
Larry Smith, a spokesperson for Entergy Nuclear, the company that owns Vermont Yankee, said the "samples are consistent with the Strontium-90 that you find in fish anywhere."
"That includes locations far away from Vermont Yankee," he said.
The United States, Russia and other countries tested atomic bombs in the 1940s and 50s, resulting in what scientists say is a dispersing of strontium-90 across the world. That was compounded by the Chernobyl accident in the Soviet Union in 1986.
Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer hired as a consultant for the Vermont Legislature, said that when cesium 137 was first discovered at the Vermont Yankee site earlier this year that Entergy also "blamed the bomb."
The true source of that cesium leak was later revealed to be failed fuel rods in the reactor.
"It is really concerning to me that for the first five months of the year they only found one fish with strontium-90," Gundersen said. "And now suddenly they are finding more fish with strontium-90 and still blaming the bomb."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls strontium-90 "one of the more hazardous constituents of nuclear wastes."
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