Will Radioactive Water From Pilgrim Plant Be Released Into Cape Cod Bay? Update Expected Monday

Environmental activists who have resisted the idea all along said they won't be satisfied unless "not one drop" is discharged into the ocean

Keith Bedford/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

An update is expected Monday night on the potential for radioactive water to be released into Cape Cod Bay as part of the decommissioning of a former nuclear power plant, but environmental activists who have resisted the idea all along said they won't be satisfied unless "not one drop" is discharged into the ocean.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel, which was created by a 2016 state law to advise the governor, lawmakers and state agencies about the decommissioning of Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, meets Monday night at Plymouth Town Hall. The nuclear power plant went out of service in 2019 and is in the process of being decommissioned by owner Holtec International.



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Before the meeting, members of Cape Downwinders and Save Our Bay plan to rally outside against the possibility of Holtec getting rid of any water left over from plant operations by treating it and then pumping it into Cape Cod Bay. The company's consideration of the disposal method, which has been used at other decommissioned nuclear plants, drew scrutiny from lawmakers and environmentalists when it was first raised here late in 2021.

The company working to decommission the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth is considering dumping radioactive waste into Cape Cod Bay.

Holtec said Monday that no decision about the disposal of the roughly 1 million gallons of water has been settled upon and that the water is expected to remain in use through at least the first three months of 2023.

"Holtec remains committed to being open and transparent as we work with our regulators regarding the eventual disposal of processed water from [the] Pilgrim site. We will follow the permitting process as we continue to work with the EPA and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection," Holtec spokesman Patrick O'Brien said in a statement.

O'Brien said that Holtec is evaluating four options for disposal of waste water from the Pilgrim site: discharge as a liquid, evaporation, transport to a facility that would perform liquid discharge or evaporation, and storing the water onsite.

"The most likely solution would be a combination of all four options, not one over another," he said.

A Holtec official is expected to provide an update at Monday night's advisory panel meeting on an analysis conducted on samples taken from the water that Holtec is eying for disposal. In an information sheet released earlier this year, the company said releases of waste water are regulated by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and "are typically indistinguishable from the natural radioactivity present in the environment."

"The safe limits that the NRC sets regarding dose to a member of the public from a nuclear power plant is 100 millirem, while the EPA standard is 25 millirem. These safe limits are based on science and were set using a public comment period. Releases from nuclear power plants typically do not total more than 1 millirem annually," the company said.

Holtec added, "For perspective, Pilgrim's historical releases both via liquid and gaseous sources in the last 15 years have averaged a total of 0.12 millirem annually, or 833 times lower than the NRC limit and 208 times lower than the EPA limit, or 33 times lower than the dose you personally would receive if you were to take a plane from New York to Los Angeles in the summer, which is 4 millirem."

Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey and Reps. Seth Moulton and William Keating sent a letter to Holtec strongly urging them not to dump 1 million gallons of radioactive water from the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station into the ocean.

Monday night's meeting will also feature a brief update from U.S. Sen. Edward Markey's state director, former Rep. James Cantwell. Earlier this year, according to the Cape Cod Times, Holtec agreed to hold off on any water releases until a third-party panel of experts agreed to by the company and senator's office can evaluate the water's contamination levels.

"Additionally, we look forward to working with Sen. Markey's office when they provide a panel of experts to evaluate data from water quality testing. We expect Sen Markey's expert panel to provide factual information to the discussions around water disposition," O'Brien said.

The fight over the disposal of contaminated water from the former Pilgrim site was almost put onto the back burner for a few years, but a recent veto from Gov. Charlie Baker means that the issue -- and others associated with dismantling a former nuclear power plant -- is likely to linger into the new administration of Gov.-elect Maura Healey.

When he signed the long overdue economic development bill earlier this month, Baker also vetoed a section that would have created a special commission to examine "the potential negative environmental and economic impacts" of discharging radioactive spent fuel pool water, a provision which lawmakers included specifically with Holtec's idea to dump tainted water into Cape Cod Bay in mind.

The governor said that proposed panel's work "would be duplicative of, and would interfere with, ongoing work on waste disposal and decommissioning issues by the responsible federal and state agencies."

The outside section would have also forced Holtec to wait as long as two years before moving ahead with any plans to dispose of waste water into the bay. The section that Baker vetoed included a clause declaring that there "shall be no discharge of spent fuel pool water, any materials created as a waste product of nuclear energy from spent fuel pools, including, but not limited to, processed water ... until 90 days after the issuance of the commission's report," which would have been due Nov. 1, 2024.

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