The leak of a small amount of radioactive coolant into the Savannah River this week has been termed harmless, but officials 90 miles downstream are concerned about plans to tap the river for drinking water.
Coolant contaminated with the radioactive gas tritium leaked from the Savannah River Site's K Reactor near Aiken, S.C., sometime between Sunday and Wednesday. The government reactor is the country's only source of tritium, which is used in thermonuclear warheads.
Despite assurances from federal officials that the leak is too small to threaten those living downstream, officials at Hilton Head Island said they are worried.
Hilton Head Island gets its water from an underground aquifer, which is becoming tainted by salt water. The resort island, which has 24,000 permanent residents and up to 60,000 residents in the summer, needs a new water source.
A committee decided that the Savannah River was the best alternative, and plans were made to begin using river water by 1996.
Bob Huber, head of the committee, wrote to the Energy Department urging it to shut down the reactor if it cannot be run safely.
"I don't know what we can do," Huber said. "But we can't remain quiet."
Huber, commissioner for one of 10 utilities providing the island's water, said the leak is especially worrisome because the Energy Department has spent $1 billion on a safety overhaul.
The K Reactor has been shut down since 1988. Earlier this month, Energy Secretary James D. Watkins authorized its restart.
"It's frightening," said state Rep. Holly Cork, a Republican who represents Hilton Head. "It reinforces my concern about the Savannah River site and the possibility of the Savannah River being Hilton Head's new drinking water source."
A water treatment plant serving Beaufort and Jasper counties, meanwhile, was to switch from Savannah River water to an alternate source beginning today. The plant is about 75 miles downstream from the reactor.