A million gallons of radioactive water sits inside an old nuclear power plant along Cape Cod Bay, and it must go.
But where is the thorny question, and will the State intervene according to the company’s dismantling of the factory?
Holtec International, which is seeking approval for an underground used nuclear fuel storage site in New Mexico, plans to treat the water and release it into the bay, sparking fierce resistance from residents locals, shellfish harvesters and politicians. Holtec is also considering evaporating the contaminated water or trucking it to a facility in another state.
The Pilgrim Nuclear Generating Station in Plymouth, Massachusetts, closed in 2019 after nearly half a century providing power to the region. U.S. Representative William Keating, a Democrat whose district includes Cape Town, wrote to Holtec along with other senior Massachusetts lawmakers in January to oppose the release of water in Cape Cod Bay. It has asked the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission to review its regulations.
Keating said in late March that Holtec’s handling of radioactive water could set a precedent because the US dismantling industry is in its infancy. Most US nuclear power plants were built between 1970 and 1990.
“If they’re listening, sensitive and working with those communities, that’s important,” he said. “That’s the message for future dismantling sites.”
Holtec has acquired closed nuclear power plants across the country as part of its decommissioning business, including the former Oyster Creek Power Plant in New Jersey and the Indian Point Energy Center in New York. He takes possession of the Palisades nuclear power plant on Lake Michigan, which is closing this year.
Pilgrim was a boiling water reactor. Water was constantly circulating through the reactor vessel and nuclear fuel, converting it to steam to spin the turbine. The water was cooled and recirculated, picking up radioactive contamination.
Cape Cod is a tourist mecca. Having radioactive water in the bay, even at low levels, is not good for marketing, said Democratic State Rep. Josh Cutler, who represents a district there. Cutler is working to pass legislation prohibiting the dumping of radioactive materials into coastal or inland waters.
Holtec said Pilgrim had already been discharging water into the bay for 50 years while the plant was in operation and environmental studies, conducted by the plant operators and now Holtec, have shown little or no environmental impact. . Radiological environmental reports are submitted annually to the NRC.
“We work to provide scientific data, educate the public about the reality of radiation in everyday life, and work to have experts explain real science versus the emotional fear of the unknown,” spokesperson Patrick wrote. O’Brien in an email in March.
Holtec could treat the water and discharge it in batches over several years, probably the least expensive option. Or, it could evaporate the water in place, as it says it has done with about 680,000 gallons over the past two years.
Water evaporation would be more difficult to do now because the spent nuclear fuel is stored and could not be used as a heat source. Holtec would have to use a different – probably more expensive – method that would release gas.
Or, Holtec could truck the water to an out-of-state facility, where it could be mixed with clay and buried or placed in an evaporation pond, or released into local waterways.
That’s what Keating wants.
The Vermont Yankee Nuclear Generating Station, another boiling water reactor, was shut down in Vernon, Vermont, in 2014. It sends wastewater to disposal specialists in Texas and other states. Entergy operated and sold both Vermont Yankee and Pilgrim. NorthStar, a separate dismantling competitor, is dismantling Vermont Yankee.
Nuclear power plants sometimes have to remove water with low levels of radioactivity when they operate, so a process to release it in batches into local waterways was developed in the early days of the nuclear industry.
In recent years, at Pilgrim, the two largest releases occurred in 2011, with 29 releases totaling approximately 325,000 gallons, and in 2013, with 21 releases totaling approximately 310,000 gallons.
The water from these discharges was well below federal limits for the amount of radionuclides in millirems a person would be exposed to in a year if they ate local seafood or swam in nearby waters, according to the NRC.
NRC Northeast spokesman Neil Sheehan said the boundaries are set very conservatively and are meant to protect the public and the environment. He said it was important to consider the role of dilution – once discharges mix with large amounts of water, any radioactivity is usually not detectable.
In Duxbury, Kingston and Plymouth Bays, there are 50 oyster farms — the largest concentration in the state, worth $5.1 million last year, according to the Massachusetts Seafood Collaborative. The collaboration said the water spill would devastate industry and the local economy with it.
Harwich resident and longtime Pilgrim watchdog Diane Turco wonders if the water is heavily contaminated, particularly from the pool that covered spent fuel stored for cooling and shielded workers from radiation.
“Isn’t it a crazy idea on Holtec’s part to use our bay as a dumping ground? No way,” she said.
Others were unaware that Pilgrim Water had spilled into the bay in previous years and they don’t want it to happen again.
“We can’t change that, but we can change what happens in the future,” said Cutler, the state legislator. “It’s the first time it’s been taken out of service, so comparing that to the past is a convenient excuse. “Well, we’ve done that in the past,” sounds like my kid.
Cape Town cities are trying to ban the dispersal of radioactive materials in their waters. Tribal chiefs, fishermen, lobsters and real estate agents have also publicly declared their opposition.
Sheehan, the NRC spokesperson, said the water is not different or distinct from water released during plant operations. Holtec would have to handle it the same way, filtering it, putting it in a tank, analyzing the radioisotopes and calculating the environmental impacts if it were released in batches, he added.
Holtec would not need separate approval from the NRC to discharge the water into the bay. However, Holtec would need permission from the US Environmental Protection Agency if the water contained pollutants regulated by the Clean Water Act, such as dissolved metals.
If the water contained only NRC-regulated radioactive materials, Holtec would not need to apply to the EPA for a permit amendment, according to the EPA’s New England Water Division. Holtec never gave the EPA a water pollution characterization associated with the decommissioning, the division manager said.
Mary Lampert, of Duxbury, is part of a panel set up by the state to examine the issues surrounding the dismantling of the Pilgrim. She thinks the state could use its existing laws and regulations to stop the spill and plans to lobby the Massachusetts attorney general to file a preliminary injunction to do so.
The attorney general’s office said it was monitoring the issue and would take any violations of the Clean Water Act seriously.
Holtec said this week it was testing the water for possible pollutants, but lab results won’t be available for some time.
The company expects to decide what to do with the water later this year. Release, evaporation and some limited transport will likely all be part of the solution, Holtec added.