Pilgrim nuclear plant may release 1M gallons of radioactive water into bay. What we know

PLYMOUTH — One of the options being considered by the company that is decommissioning the closed Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station is to release around one million gallons of potentially radioactive water into Cape Cod Bay.

The option had been discussed briefly with state regulatory officials as one possible way to get rid of water from the spent fuel pool, the reactor vessel and other components of the facility, Holtec International spokesman Patrick O'Brien said in an interview Wednesday. It was highlighted in a report by state Department of Environmental Protection Deputy Regional Director Seth Pickering at Monday's meeting of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel in Plymouth.

"We had broached that with the state, but we've made no decision on that," O'Brien said.

Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, which was permanently closed in 2019 and is undergoing decommissioning.
Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, which was permanently closed in 2019 and is undergoing decommissioning.

As of mid-December, Holtec will complete the process of moving all the spent fuel rods into casks that are being stored on a concrete pad on the Pilgrim plant site in Plymouth. After that, O'Brien told the panel, the removal and disposal of other components in those areas of the facility will take place and be completed sometime in February.

O'Brien said the remaining water used to cool the fuel rods in the pool and inside the reactor will be dealt with — the process to decide on a disposal method will get underway within the next six months to a year. Two other possible options discussed at Monday's meeting are trucking the water off-site to an approved facility, as Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant did in shipping its contaminated water to a site in Idaho or to evaporate it, a process that has already been employed in some areas of the Plymouth plant.

Before they decide on any options, O'Brien said they would do an analysis to determine what contaminants the water contains. Likely, it will be metals and radioactive materials, he said.

Decommissioning process: Main emissions stack at Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station set to come down

Radioactive water inspected before it is released

Pickering pointed out that any water discharged under the federal Clean Water Act discharge permit overseen by the federal Environmental Protection Agency would have to be part of an approved plan reviewed by the EPA, the DEP and the state Department of Public Health.

"Mass DEP, and the U.S. EPA have made the company aware that any discharge of pollutants regulated under the Clean Water Act, (and) contained within spent fuel cooling water, into the ocean through Cape Cod Bay is not authorized under the NPDES (National Pollution Discharge Elimination System) permit," Pickering said. But he went on to say that radioactivity is not listed under the NPDES as a pollutant and is regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Pine duBois, vice chair of the citizens decommissioning panel, cited a memorandum of understanding signed by Holtec that governed the decommissioning of Pilgrim — negotiated by the state Attorney General's office — that stated discharge of pollutants into Cape Cod Bay is not permitted.

"It's not permitted by the EPA, but that doesn't mean it can't happen if the NRC allows it," duBois said.

O'Brien noted that it was a fairly common practice in the nuclear industry, known as "overboarding," to release water, including radioactive water, into the ocean from power plants. He said it happened recently during the decommissioning of New Jersey's Oyster Creek facility, which is also being done by Holtec.

Opposition to plan comes from Cape Cod resident and officials

But state Sen. Susan Moran, D-Falmouth, said she is opposed to any release of radioactive water into Cape Cod Bay as part of the decommissioning process. She called for Holtec to release plans on how they will handle all waste materials at the plant.

The Nov. 7 accidental release of over 7,200 gallons of water into Cape Cod Bay — when contractors, seeking to drain a flooded electrical vault to do repair work following the October nor'easter, pumped water into a storm drain that emptied into the sea — did not inspire confidence in the execution of protocols, plant watchdogs say. That discharge was believed to be non-radioactive water.

"Although the recently reported violation of the station national pollutant discharge elimination system has been described as isolated, it brings to light that there are not sufficient safeguards and procedures in place to prevent discharges of contaminated water into the Cape Cod Bay. The potential for pollutants and dangerous materials being discharged in our water resources is alarming," Moran said in an email Wednesday. "Further, it is imperative that the federal agencies stop kicking the can down the road and determine long term solutions for the removal of these materials safely and expeditiously."

Diane Turco, of Harwich, the director of Cape Downwinders, a citizen group that was at the forefront of the effort to close Pilgrim, called any option that included sending radioactive water into the bay "outrageous" and "criminal." Turco said she has no confidence in the decommissioning process.

"The process has been to allow radioactivity into the environment," she said. "The answer should be no you can't do that."

Richard Delaney, the president of the Center for Coastal Studies, agreed.

"My immediate reaction to putting radioactivity into the ocean, into that part of Cape Cod Bay is that it would be nature-negative," he said. "We have been monitoring water quality in Cape Cod Bay for 20 years and there's already enough pollutants going into the bay. To put radioactive waste on top of that — it shouldn't be an option."

Delaney said he wondered if it was included as an option to be analyzed, but one that in the end wouldn't seriously be considered. DuBois agreed.

"I have a hard time thinking the NRC overrules (the EPA)," duBois said, adding that Holtec will be careful about damaging the environment.

"I think Holtec wants to do this right because they want to be a giant of the (decommissioning) industry. If they mess up Pilgrim, their reputation is dead," duBois said.

Turco called on the public to start paying more attention to the decommissioning process and attend citizens advisory board meetings in person and remotely. But O'Brien and duBois said the public comment period pretty much passed with the issuance of the NPDES permit.

"I don't think there's a requirement for public comment," duBois said.

Contact Doug Fraser at dfraser@capecodonline.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dougfrasercct.

This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Pilgrim nuclear plant may release radioactive water into Cape Cod Bay