PLYMOUTH — The meetings of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel (NDCAP) usually draw just a handful of observers. But on Monday it was standing room only when the group discussed what to do with a million gallons of radioactive wastewater.
Holtec Decommissioning International, the company that owns and is decommissioning the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, announced a plan last November to release the water into Cape Cod Bay after treating it to bring contamination within federal limits.
Public outcry was immediate, prompting Holtec to delay action for several months to consider alternatives. The company has said it will announce a decision on what to do with the wastewater this fall.
The turnout at Monday’s meeting showed the depth of opposition to releasing the water into the bay, said NDCAP member Mary Lampert. “Whether they be lobstermen, environmentalists, or just neighbors, of different ages and from different walks of life, they are getting organized and having an effect,” she said.
The advisory panel was established to offer guidance on the decommissioning of the Pilgrim plant. Holtec appears to have done little to explore alternatives to releasing the water into the bay. Evaporating the filtered water would likely require diesel generators to produce large amounts of heat, say company officials.
In a letter to U.S. Sen. Edward Markey in June, Holtec President Kris Singh said that trucking the water offsite to a licensed facility — the option preferred by those looking to keep the water out of the bay — had been taken off the table because it would be “counter to our basic tenets of environmental justice.” It also carries a $20-million price tag.
Another alternative to releasing the water into the bay is to store it onsite, which Singh said would delay decommissioning.
At times, Monday’s meeting got rowdy.
David Noyes, Pilgrim’s senior compliance manager, maintained that all options remain on the table, but the crowd wasn’t buying it.
“I just want to offer my strongest condemnation of Holtec’s flagrant disregard for the people of Plymouth and the surrounding communities,” said state Sen. Susan Moran, a Falmouth Democrat whose district includes parts of Plymouth and Barnstable counties. “We know that Holtec has continued to minimize the impacts and fully intends to pursue their original plan to dump one million gallons of nuclear wastewater into Cape Cod Bay, and we know, barring significant reforms to decommissioning oversight, there’s likely insufficient authority to prevent them from steamrolling the will of the public.”
Moran and the rest of the region’s legislative delegation were successful in getting an amendment passed in the Senate version of the state’s economic development bill that would force Holtec to wait at least two years while a commission studies the economic and environmental effects of releasing waste into the state’s waterways.
The bill and the attached amendment must still make it through a conference committee of Senate and House representatives and secure the governor’s signature.
With only about two months left until Holtec announces how it will dispose of the wastewater, those who fear it will be released into the bay are becoming increasingly frustrated.
Save Our Bay, a coalition of environmental groups, citizens organizations, and leaders of the fishing and tourism industries, wrote to Gov. Charlie Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey in mid-July, warning that it will be too late if they don’t act quickly. The group has been trying unsuccessfully to schedule a meeting with Baker. They have yet to hear back from him.
In a statement to the Independent, Healey’s press secretary Chloe Gotsis wrote that her office agrees with the concerns raised by federal officials “that decommissioning-related wastewater discharges, including spent fuel pool water, into Cape Cod Bay would violate the company’s existing permits.
“We are prepared to take action to prevent violations,” wrote Gotsis, who did not say what form the action would take.
At Monday’s meeting, Seth Pickering, the Mass. Dept. of Environmental Protection’s representative on NDCAP, said the state’s environmental and public health agencies are in discussion with the attorney general’s office. But he declined to elaborate.
Pickering said DEP agrees with the Environmental Protection Agency’s interpretation of Pilgrim’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, which is issued jointly by the two agencies.
In a strongly worded letter to Holtec last month, EPA officials said that releasing the water from the spent fuel pool and other systems would violate the permit. The company would need a new permit or an amended permit following a thorough review, the letter said.
While the regulation of radionuclides is under the authority of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the NPDES permit regulates a long list of nonradioactive pollutants. Pickering said that initial sampling of the wastewater in the spent fuel pool and other systems, recently provided by Holtec, showed the presence of some of those nonradioactive pollutants, and therefore the release would be prohibited.
Holtec interprets the permit differently. The company argues that the current permit prohibits only the release of untreated wastewater. The discharge of filtered and demineralized wastewater is allowed, Holtec maintains.
Holtec’s Noyes told the NDCAP that the treated wastewater “compares very favorably with Plymouth town water.”
James Lampert, an attorney, argued on Monday that state regulations protecting ocean sanctuaries prohibit the release into the bay.
“The state ocean sanctuary regulation makes NO distinction for processed versus not processed,” Lampert wrote in an email on Tuesday. “So, if discharged, contrary to Noyes and Singh, they are violating the law.”
Diane Turco, director of the Cape Downwinders, said Holtec was “thumbing its nose” at the state and federal agencies.
“The EPA has said you can’t dump; the Attorney General has said you can’t dump; the Conservation Law Foundation has said you can’t dump, and 22 communities around the bay, as stakeholders, have said, don’t dump, and yet Holtec has it as their primary plan,” Turco said. “You’re not kidding us, saying, ‘Oh, we’re thinking about it.’ Don’t dump radioactive water into Cape Cod Bay, period.”
NDCAP’s next meeting is scheduled for mid-September, when more definitive information on the contaminants in the unprocessed water is expected to be available.