EXPLAINER: Why would a nuclear plant dump wastewater into the bay?

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 the disturbing question? Will the State intervene as the company that dismantles the plant decides?

Holtec International is considering treating the water and discharging it into the bay, drawing fierce resistance from local residents, shell fishermen and politicians. Holtec is also considering evaporating the contaminated water or trucking it to a facility in another state.

The fight in Massachusetts mirrors an ongoing heated debate in Japan over a plan to release more than 1 million tons of treated radioactive wastewater into the ocean from the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant in the spring of 2023. A massive tsunami in 2011 crashed against the plant. Three reactors melted down.

The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant in Plymouth, Massachusetts closed in 2019 after nearly half a century providing electricity to the region. US Representative William Keating, a Democrat whose district includes Cape Cod, wrote to Holtec along with other top Massachusetts lawmakers in January to oppose the release of water in Cape Cod Bay. He asked the US 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 decommissioning industry is in its infancy. Most US nuclear power plants were built between 1970 and 1990.

“If they’re listening, being sensitive and working with these communities, it’s important,” he said. “That is the message for future decommissioning sites.”

Holtec has acquired closed nuclear plants across the country as part of its decommissioning business, including the former Oyster Creek Generating Station in New Jersey and the Indian Point Power Center in New York. He is taking over the Palisades nuclear plant on Lake Michigan, which is set to close this year.

Pilgrim was a boiling water reactor. Water was constantly circulating through the reactor vessel and nuclear fuel, converting it to steam to turn the turbine. The water was cooled and recirculated, collecting radioactive contamination.

Cape Cod is a tourist hotspot. 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 that would prohibit the discharge of radioactive material into coastal or inland waters.

Holtec said that Pilgrim already discharged water into the bay for 50 years while the plant was in operation and environmental studies, carried out by the plant’s operators and now by Holtec, have shown little or no environmental impact. Radiological environmental reports are shared with the NRC annually.

“We are working to provide scientific data, educate the public about the reality of radiation in everyday life, and work to get experts to explain the real science in the face of emotional fear of the unknown,” spokesman Patrick O’Brien wrote in an email. email in March. .


Holtec could treat the water and discharge it in batches over several years, probably the least expensive option. Or, he could evaporate the water on site, as he says he has done with some 680,000 gallons (2,600 kiloliters) in the last two years.

Evaporating the water 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 Power Plant, another boiling water reactor, was shut down in Vernon, Vermont, in 2014. It is sending wastewater to disposal specialists in Texas and other states. Entergy operated and sold the Vermont Yankee and Pilgrim. NorthStar, a separate corporation and competitor in the decommissioning business, is decommissioning the Vermont Yankee.

Nuclear plants occasionally need to dispose of water with low levels of radioactivity when they are in operation, so a process to release it in batches into local waterways was developed at the dawn of the nuclear industry.

In recent years at Pilgrim, the two largest releases were in 2011, with 29 releases totaling 325,000 gallons (1,500 kiloliters), and 2013, with 21 releases totaling 310,000 gallons.

The water from those releases 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 shellfish or swam in nearby waters, according to the NRC.

NRC spokesman for the Northeast, Neil Sheehan, said the limits are set very conservatively and are believed to protect the public and the environment. He said it’s important to consider the role of dilution: Once the discharges are mixed with large amounts of water, the radioactivity is usually not detectable.


In Duxbury, Kingston and Plymouth Bay, there are 50 oyster beds, the largest concentration in the state, worth $5.1 million last year, according to the Massachusetts Seafood Collaborative. The contributor said that dumping the water would devastate the industry and, along with it, the local economy.

Diane Turco, a Harwich resident and longtime Pilgrim caretaker, fears the water is heavily contaminated, especially from the pool that covered the stored spent fuel, to cool and protect workers from radiation.

“Isn’t it a crazy idea for Holtec to use our bay as a dump? No way,” she said.

Others were unaware that Pilgrim’s Water entered the bay in previous years and do not want it to happen again.

“We can’t change that, but we can change what’s going to happen in the future,” said Cutler, the state legislator. “This is the first time it has been retired from service, so comparing this to the past is a convenient excuse. ‘Well, we did it in the past,’ that sounds like my son.”

Cape towns are trying to ban the spread of radioactive materials in their waters. Tribal leaders, fishermen, lobstermen and real estate agents have also publicly voiced their opposition.

Sheehan, the NRC spokesman, said the water is not different or distinct compared to water released during plant operations. Holtec would have to handle it the same way, filtering it, putting it in a tank, analyzing for radioisotopes and calculating the environmental impacts if released in batches, he added.


Holtec would not need a 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 contaminants regulated by the Clean Water Act, such as dissolved metals.

If the water contained only NRC-regulated radioactive materials, Holtec would not have to ask the EPA for a permit modification, according to the EPA’s New England water division. Holtec has never provided the EPA with a water contaminant characterization associated with the decommissioning, the division director said.

Mary Lampert, of Duxbury, is on a panel set up by the state to look into issues surrounding the decommissioning of the Pilgrim. She believes the state could use its existing laws and regulations to stop the dumping, and plans to push the Massachusetts attorney general to file a preliminary injunction to do so.

The attorney general’s office said it is monitoring the problem and would take any Clean Water Act violations seriously.

Holtec said this week that it is testing the water for possible contaminants, but lab results won’t be available for a while.

The company hopes to decide what to do with the water later this year. Offloading, evaporation and some limited transport will likely be part of the solution, Holtec added.

New Technology Era

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