There’s a million gallons of radioactive water inside a former nuclear power plant along Cape Cod Bay and it has to go.
But where is this worrying question, and will the state intervene as per the company’s decision to dismantle the plant?
Holtec International is considering treating the water and releasing it into the bay, which has been strongly opposed by local residents, shell fishermen and politicians. Holtec is also looking at evaporating the contaminated water or trucking it to a facility in another state.
The fighting in Massachusetts reflects a current, heated debate over Japan’s plan to release more than 1 million tons of treated radioactive wastewater from the ruined Fukushima nuclear plant into the ocean in the spring of 2023., In 2011 a massive tsunami crashed the plant. Three reactors melted.
Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Massachusetts, closed in 2019, after providing electricity to the region for nearly half a century. US Representative William Keating, a Democrat whose district includes the Cape, wrote to Holtec in January, along with other top Massachusetts lawmakers, to oppose the release of water in Cape Cod Bay. He asked the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to investigate its rules.
Keating said in late March that Holtec’s handling of radioactive water could set an example as the US decommissioning industry is in its infancy. Most US nuclear plants were built between 1970 and 1990.
“If they’re listening, being sensitive and working with these communities, that’s important,” he said. “That’s the message for future decommissioning sites.”
Holtec has acquired closed nuclear plants across the country as part of its dissolution business, including the former Oyster Creek Generating Station in New Jersey and the Indian Point Energy Center in New York. It is taking ownership of the Palisades nuclear plant on Lake Michigan, which is closing this year.
The Pilgrim was a boiling water reactor. Water is continuously circulated through the reactor vessel and nuclear fuel converts it into steam to spin the turbine. The water was cooled and recirculated, picking up radioactive contamination.
Cape Cod is a tourist attraction. Democratic State Rep. Josh Cutler, who represents a district there, said radioactive water in the bay, even low levels, isn’t great for marketing. Cutler is working to pass legislation to restrict the discharge of radioactive material into coastal or inland waters.
Holtec said the Pilgrims had already left water in the bay for 50 years while the plant was running and environmental studies, carried out by plant operators and now Holtec, have shown little or no environmental impact. The Radiological Environment Report is shared with the NRC annually.
“We are working to provide scientific data, educate the public on the reality of radiation in everyday life, and help experts explain true science versus emotional fear of the unknown,” said spokesman Patrick. O’Brien wrote in an email in March. ,
What are the alternatives to Holtec?
Holtec can treat the water and discharge it in batches over several years, possibly the least expensive option. Or, it could evaporate the water at the site, as it says it has done over the past two years with about 680,000 gallons (2,600 kilolitres).
Evaporating the water will now be more challenging because the spent nuclear fuel is in storage, and cannot be used as a heat source. Holtec would have to use a different — potentially more expensive method — that would release the gas.
Or, Holtec may transport the water to an out-of-state facility, where it can be mixed with soil and buried or placed in an evaporation pond, or released into local waterways. That’s what Keating wants.
Another boiling water reactor, the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station, was shut down in 2014 in Vernon, Vermont. It is sending wastewater to disposal specialists in Texas and other states. Entergy operated and sold both Vermont Yankees and Pilgrim’s. Northstar, a separate and competing corporation in the decommissioning business, is dismantling Vermont Yankees.
Nuclear plants sometimes need to dispose of water containing low levels of radioactivity while operating, so the process of releasing it in batches into local waterways was developed early in the nuclear industry.
In recent years at Pilgrim, the two largest releases were in 2011, with 29 releases totaling 325,000 gallons (1,500 kl) and in 2013, with 21 releases totaling 310,000 gallons.
According to the NRC, if they ate local seafood or swam in nearby waters, the water from those releases was well below the federal limit for the amount of radionuclides in millimeters.
Neil Sheehan, NRC spokesman for the Northeast, said the boundaries are set very conservatively and are believed to protect the public and the environment. He said it is important to consider the role of dilution – once a discharge with large amounts of water is found, no radioactivity is usually detected.
Why are people worried?
In Duxbury, Kingston and Plymouth Bay, there are 50 oyster farms—the largest concentration in the state, worth $5.1 million last year, according to the Massachusetts Seafood Collaborative. The aide said dumping the water would devastate the industry and the local economy as well.
A Harwich resident and longtime Pilgrim watchdog, Diane Turco fears that the water is heavily contaminated, particularly from the pools that cover stored, spent fuel to cool off, and workers shielded from radiation.
“Isn’t it a crazy idea for a Holtec to use our bay as their dump? No way,” she said.
Others did not know that the Pilgrim’s waters had gone into the bay in previous years and did not want it to happen again.
“We can’t change it, but we can change what’s happening in the future,” Cutler, a state legislator, said. “This is the first time it’s ever been taken down, so comparing it to the past is a convenient excuse. ‘Well, we did it in the past,’ this sounds like my baby.”
Cape Towns are trying to restrict the spread of radioactive substances in their waters. Tribal leaders, fishermen, lobsters and real estate agents have also publicly expressed their opposition.
NRC spokesperson Sheehan said the water is no different or different than the water released during the operation of the plant. Holtec would have to handle it the same way, by filtering it, putting it in a tank, analyzing the radioisotopes and calculating the environmental impacts if it was released in batches, he said.
Who gets the final say?
Holtec will not require separate approval from the NRC to release water into the Gulf. However, Holtec would require permission from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency if the water contained contaminants regulated by the Clean Water Act, such as dissolved metals.
If the water only contained radioactive material regulated by the NRC, Holtec would not need to ask the EPA for a permit amendment, according to the EPA’s Department of Water for New England. The division director said Holtec has never given the EPA a pollutant characterization of the water associated with decommissioning.
Mary Lampert of Duxbury is on a state-appointed panel to look into issues related to the pilgrim’s discharge. He believes the state can use its existing laws and regulations to prevent dumping and plans to pressure 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 violation of the Clean Water Act seriously.
Holtec said this week it is testing the water for potential contaminants, but lab results will not be available for some time.
The company expects to decide what to do with the water later this year. Holtec said that discharge, evaporation and some limited transport will all be part of the solution.