Why would the nuclear power plant dump wastewater in the bay?

One million liters of radioactive water are in a former nuclear power plant along Cape Cod Bay and it must go.

But where, is the annoying question, and will the state intervene when the company that dismantles the facility decides?

Holtec International is considering treating the water and releasing it into the bay, drawing strong opposition from locals, shellfishers and politicians. Holtec is also considering evaporating the polluted water or transporting it to a facility in another state.

The fight in Massachusetts reflects a current, hot debate in Japan about a plan to release more than 1 million tons of purified radioactive wastewater into the sea from the wrecked nuclear power plant in Fukushima in the spring of 2023. A massive tsunami in 2011 crashed into the facility. Three reactors melted down.

The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Massachusetts, was closed in 2019 after providing the region with electricity for almost half a century. US Representative William Keating, a Democrat whose district includes the Cape, wrote to Holtec 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 at the end of March that Holtec’s handling of the 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 are listening, responsive and working with these communities, it is important,” he said. “That is the message for future decommissioning facilities.”

Holtec has acquired closed nationwide nuclear power plants as part of its dismantling operations, including the former Oyster Creek Generating Station in New Jersey and the Indian Point Energy Center in New York. It takes ownership of the Palisade Nuclear Power Plant on Lake Michigan, which closes this year.

Pilgrim was a boiling water reactor. Water constantly circulated through the reactor vessel and the nuclear fuel and converted it to steam to spin the turbine. The water was cooled and recycled and took up radioactive contamination.

Cape Cod is a tourist area. Having radioactive water in the bay, even at low levels, is not good for marketing, says Democratic State Representative Josh Cutler, who represents a district there. Cutler is working to pass legislation to ban the release of radioactive material into coastal or inland waters.

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

“We work to provide scientific data, educate the public about the realities of radiation in everyday life and work for experts to explain the true science versus the emotional fear of the unknown,” spokesman Patrick O’Brien wrote in an email in March. .


Holtec could treat the water and release it in batches for several years, probably the cheapest option. Or it can evaporate the water in place, as it says it has done with about 680,000 gallons (2,600 kiloliters) in the last two years.

Evaporation of the water would be more challenging to do now because the spent nuclear fuel is in stock and can not be used as a heat source. Holtec would need to use another – probably more expensive – method that would release gas.

Or, Holtec can transport the water to an out-of-state facility, where it can be mixed with clay and buried or placed in an evaporation pond, or discharged into local waterways. That’s what Keating wants.

Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station, another boiling water reactor, shut down in Vernon, Vermont, 2014. It sends wastewater to disposal specialists in Texas and other states. Entergy operated and sold both Vermont Yankee and Pilgrim. NorthStar, a separate and competitive company in the settlement industry, is liquidating the Vermont Yankee.

Nuclear power plants sometimes need to dispose of water with low levels of radioactivity when they are in operation, so a process to release it in batches to local watercourses was developed early in the nuclear power industry.

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

The water from these discharges was well below the federal limits for the amount of radionuclides in milliremes a person would be exposed to for a year if they ate local shellfish or swam in nearby waters, according to the NRC.

The NRC’s spokesman for the Northeast, Neil Sheehan, said the boundaries are set very conservatively and are believed to be protective of the public and the environment. He said it was important to consider the role of dilution – once emissions are mixed 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 that dumping the water would destroy the industry and the local economy along with it.

Diane Turco, a Harwich resident and long-time pilgrim guard dog, fears the water is heavily polluted, especially from the pool that covered the stored, used fuel for cooling and protecting workers from radiation.

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

Others did not know that Pilgrim’s water entered the bay in previous years and they do not want it to happen again.

“We can not change that, but we can change what happens in the future,” said Cutler, the state legislature. “It’s the first time it’s been taken out of service, so comparing this to the past is a convenient excuse. ‘Well, we did it before,’ it sounds like my child.”

Cities on the cape are trying to ban the spread of radioactive material in their waters. Tribal leaders, fishermen, lobster men and real estate agents have also publicly stated their opposition.

Sheehan, the NRC’s spokesman, said the water is not different or distinct compared to water released during the plant’s operation. Holtec would need to handle it in the same way, by filtering it, putting it in a tank, analyzing the radioisotopes and calculating the environmental impact if it was released in batches, he added.


Holtec would not need a separate approval from the NRC to release 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 radioactive material regulated by the NRC, Holtec would not have to ask the EPA for a permit change, according to the EPA’s Water Department for New England. Holtec has never given the EPA a pollution characterization of the water in connection with decommissioning, said the division’s director.

Mary Lampert, from Duxbury, sits on a panel created by the state to look at issues related to the pilgrimage. She believes the state could use its existing laws and regulations to stop dumping and plans to pressure the Massachusetts Attorney General to file a preliminary injunction to do so.

The prosecutor’s office said they were monitoring the matter and would take all violations of the Clean Water Act seriously.

Holtec said this week that it is examining the water for possible contaminants, but the lab results will not be available for a while.

The company expects to decide on what to do with the water later this year. Emissions, evaporation and some limited transport will probably all be part of the solution, Holtec added.

New Technology Era

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