Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station

Pilgrim Weighs What to Do With 1 Million Gallons of Radioactive Water

The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth shut down in 2019, and ever since, there has been speculation about what will happen to the million gallons of radioactive waste sitting offshore

NBC Universal, Inc.

For years, the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth has been the only operating commercial nuclear power plant in Massachusetts. Ever since it shut down in 2019, there has been speculation about what is going to happen with the million gallons of radioactive water sitting offshore.

Many fear the water could be released into Cape Cod Bay.

Diane Turco of Cape Downwinders said her group has been protesting this for decades.

"I am shocked at how irresponsible decommissioning has moved forward," Turco told NBC10 Boston. "There is no real plan to deal with this highly radioactive waste."

Pilgrim was previously owned by Entergy Corporation. The Fortune 500 energy company planned on decommissioning the plant over a long period of time, but in August of 2019, Holtec International purchased Pilgrim. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Holtec wants to speed up the decommissioning process and complete the job by 2024.

Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says this accelerated plan could pose some risks.

"The danger, of course, is that in their attempt to reduce the costs and timeline for decommissioning, that they will cut corners in a way that might jeopardize public health and safety," said Lyman.

Neil Sheehan, public affairs officer for Region 1 at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told NBC10 Boston that the first step of decommissioning a plant like Pilgrim is to move all the spent fuel from storage pools into dry cast storage, then put those into stainless steel casks. Once that process is complete, the casks are stored outside, above sea level.

Sheehan explained that before Holtec can move forward with the demolition of the plant, it needs to dispose of the water from the spent fuel pools that are located inside the reactor building — and that leaves them three options. They could evaporate it, ship it off-site by truck or rail, or discharge it into the bay.

"I see no legitimate reason why the spent fuel pool water from Pilgrim could not be discharged to the ocean," said David Lochbaum, the former director of nuclear safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"I would strongly advocate against shipping the radioactively contaminated water," he continued. "Shipping accidents have occurred. When accidents of liquid-free materials happen, it's cleanup on aisle 10. But accidents involving radioactive liquids can result in the water flowing into groundwater or streams or other places where the dilution does not lower the concentration of harmful materials to safe, or less unsafe, levels."

In the past, Pilgrim has released water from the plant that contained radioactive waste, all within federal guidelines.

"Aside from these annual effluent discharge reports they need to file with us, they need to maintain this program that monitors impacts on the environment from any radioactive releases from a plant. It's called the Radiological Environmental Monitoring Program," said Sheehan.

"You still can't control exactly what happens after you release it into the environment," Lyman told NBC10 Boston. "Even if it's allowed, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's the right thing to do."

Holtec released the following statement to the NBC10 Boston Investigators:

  • "Since the November 22nd Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory meeting there have been questions and concerns around the final disposition of processed water on the site. We have been consistent in our messaging since that meeting that over the next year we will be evaluating the regulatory approved options available and no final decisions have been made. The EPA and NRC have strict regulations regarding the disposition of all effluents from any decommissioning site and Holtec confirms that these requirements will be followed in all states where we conduct operations. We wanted to share that in the near term the decision at Pilgrim has been made that the processed water will remain on site, safely stored, and that we will not discharge any processed water in 2022 while this evaluation is undertaken. We appreciate and understand the public's questions and concerns and remain committed to an open, transparent process on the decommissioning of Pilgrim Station focused on the health and safety of the public, the environment, and on-site personnel."

Sheehan said Holtec has to make sure "that any levels would not pose any sort of a health or safety risk to members of the public who are in the in the water, at the bay. The bay water is not used for drinking water purposes, obviously, but you know, we want to make sure if anybody is using, or eating oysters from the area or anything else — that they would not be adversely affected by this."

Mary Lampert, director of Pilgrim Watch, has ongoing concerns about what is being done at the plant. She lives about six miles from Pilgrim.

"If people thought this bay was going to be contaminated, what would that do to the value of my property?" Lampert said.

The NRC said Holtec can change their plans at any point in time, as long as they adhere to federal guidelines.

On Jan. 31, the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel will meet. Members of Cape Downwinders and Pilgrim Watch plan to be there. They have invited several state officials to attend, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Ed Markey, Rep. Bill Keating and Attorney General Maura Healey.

Contact Us