PLYMOUTH – Holtec International, the company overseeing the decommissioning of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, pledged this past November not to discharge any radioactive wastewater into Cape Cod Bay in 2022, and state lawmakers are using the time to enact legislation that would prevent them from doing so.
“We will never allow the dumping of radioactive waste into Cape Cod Bay,” state Sen. Susan Moran, D-Falmouth, told members of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizen Advisory Panel (NDCAP) during their every-other-month meeting Jan. 31.
Moran, along with state Rep. Matt Muratore, R-Plymouth, and representatives from Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, and U.S. Rep. William Keating’s office, D-Bourne, were on hand during the virtual meeting to share their feelings on the prospect of Holtec discharging up to 1 million gallons of treated radioactive wastewater into the bay. The plan would be to release the water in 20,000-gallon batches.
Twin bills in the House and Senate would add language to Chapter 270 of the Masachussetts General Laws, which regulates “crimes against public health,” that would disallow the deposit, disposal or discharge of any solid or liquid radioactive material in coastal or inland waters. Violators would face an initial fine of $25,000 followed by a $10,000 penalty for each subsequent violation.
Holtec’s pledge not to release any water this year came after public outcry following news they planned to do so. The company has two other options for disposing of the water, which would be to either evaporate it or transport it to the company’s storage facility in Texas, where other waste from the plant has already been sent. Each option comes with its own risks and costs.
“Let’s be realistic: When dealing with radiation, nothing’s safe,” Muratore said.
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What are the options?
David Noyes, senior compliance manager with Comprehensive Decommissioning International, the company partially owned by Holtec that is overseeing the clean-up efforts, told the panel Holtec is evaluating its options.
“No decision has been made,” he said. “We’re evaluating all three options. The decision will ultimately be made based in science.”
Although Moran said she wanted to ensure no water is released into the bay, Entergy, the company that owned the plant while it was operational, had regularly done so over the course of its 47 years in operation.
Noyes, a longtime Entergy employee who was serving as a senior manager when the plant closed in 2019, said the two largest discharges over the last 15 years were in 2011 and 2013. Combined, they accounted for 635 gallons during those two periods. He noted that the amount of radiation, measured as in millrems, was significantly below Nuclear Regulatory Commission thresholds.
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While Holtec has not released any wastewater into the bay, it has evaporated around 680,000 gallons over the last few years.
Evaporation is generally viewed as a more palatable option than liquid release, but it is no longer a cost-effective option, as the residual heat from the storage tanks continues to decline with the full removal of the spent fuel rods, which have been moved to an on-site dry-storage location known as an Independent Spent Fuel Storage Facility (ISFSI) at a higher elevation than before.
“It’s reached a point of diminishing returns, where heat is insufficient to evaporate at anywhere near that rate,” Noyes said. “To evaporate at the previous level would require fossil fuels to generate the necessary heat.”
Panel members also had their own concerns about evaporation, noting the released vapors could either create a sort of cloud with the potential to return the waste elements to either the ground or the water through precipitation.
“The effect (of evaporation) might be higher than putting it into the bay,” NDCAP member Jack Priest said. “Both are lousy choices.”
Priest works for the state Department of Public Health’s radiation control program.
Holtec president weighs in
In letter from Holtec President Kelly Trice, she said either option is environmentally safe.
“Both methods of discharge are well documented, regulated, and the federal limits that have been set are established based on scientific expert evaluation, public input, and are considered safe for humans and the environment,” the letter stated.
More:Much work remains as Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station moves toward decommissioning
That leaves the option of trucking the waste to Holtec’s storage site in Texas, where other materials from Pilgrim have already been sent.
“This technique involves extensive trucking, risk of vehicle incident, and the water is still processed and discharged in a permitted and safe fashion,” Trice wrote.
That line of thinking didn’t make sense to panel member Mary Lambert, who noted Holtec is already trucking materials to its storage site, both from Plymouth and other closed plants.
“Spent fuel has been trucked all over the country,” she said. “There’s been a lot of waste sent to Texas, again with no problems with transportation.”
Although the water issue remains unresolved, Holtec continues to make progress at the plant, including demolition of buildings and other structures and preparation to plant trees near the storage tanks to shield them from neighborhood view.
The company projects it will finish its major work at Pilgrim by 2027 in preparation for a partial site release of the 1,700-acre property by the NRC for development or other use. The developed portion of the plant covers 140 acres.
While the focus of the January meeting was on wastewater removal options, environmental samples and impact studies are awaiting review and feedback from the state. Those results, which will help shape whatever decision will ultimately be made, will likely be the main focus of the panel’s next meeting in March.
With or without specific results, Brewster resident Mary Waygan, who said she has a master’s degree in environmental science and has worked on lab and field testing, told the panel that containment is the best option.
“Dilution is not the solution to pollution,” she said. “It’s basic environmental science principle, and a principle in environmental ethics to prevent widespread discharge of containments. You need to contain it and protect it from disbursement into the general environment.”