PLYMOUTH — The owner of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station has indicated it is closer to releasing radioactive wastewater from the plant’s spent fuel pool, reactor cavity, and other systems into Cape Cod Bay.
Holtec Decommissioning International announced a year ago that it would release 1.1 million gallons of treated wastewater into Cape Cod Bay in a series of small batches as part of the decommissioning process. A public outcry ensued, and those opposed included state and federal legislators, environmental groups, and members of the fishing and tourism industries.
Holtec agreed to delay the release while it considered other options, but the company has never taken the release off the table.
Now, in a Nov. 17 letter to U.S. Senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren and Rep. William Keating, Holtec President Kelly Trice has stated that recent sampling of the plant’s wastewater, which has not yet been treated to remove pollutants, showed it is of a “higher water quality than the current water composition of Plymouth Harbor.”
The legislators wrote to Trice earlier in the month asking why the company had not responded to a June 17 letter from the Environmental Protection Agency. That letter said the discharge would clearly violate the plant’s current discharge permit. In it, Ken Moraff, water division director of the EPA’s northeast office, told Trice that Holtec would need a modification to the permit to release spent fuel pool water or other wastewater generated during decommissioning.
With its latest sampling, Holtec appears to assert it will not need that modification. Trice’s letter argues that all of the contaminants listed in the plant’s discharge permit were below detection levels — except for copper, lead, zinc, and nickel. Those would be removed when the water is treated, he wrote, making the water “of equal or higher quality than the existing water in Cape Cod Bay.”
The company does not currently report on radionuclides levels because, it says, the water is being used to aid dismantling of equipment and the levels currently fluctuate. And, in any case, the EPA does not regulate radionuclides. The EPA’s authority to stop the wastewater release would need to be based on the presence of other pollutants.
The EPA has not yet commented on Holtec’s recent sampling. But in the agency’s June letter to Trice, EPA director Moraff said Holtec was misinterpreting the permit requirements: “Your reading of the permit is, in fact, plainly inconsistent with the unambiguous terms of the permit.”
Before receiving the Nov. 17 letter from Trice, Markey, Warren, and Keating had urged Holtec to respond to that EPA directive.
“To provide clarity to our offices, local residents, and the many businesses and organizations that rely on Cape Cod Bay’s reputation for clean and safe water, we ask that Holtec confirm publicly as soon as possible that it will not discharge any Pilgrim wastewater without first obtaining the EPA’s authorization and the necessary permit modification,” wrote the three members of Congress.
Dave Deegan, regional spokesman for the EPA, confirmed last week that Holtec has not yet requested a modification to its discharge permit. The request had been expected to trigger an extensive review process.
“Given the complexities of the issues and the public interest in this case, we presume it will take more than 12 months,” Deegan said.
Baker Vetoes a Study
Earlier this month, state lawmakers showed solidarity with their Southeastern Massachusetts colleagues by unanimously approving an amendment attached to the $3.7-billion economic development bill that would have delayed the release until November 2024 while a commission studied the potential environmental and economic effects.
Gov. Charlie Baker’s veto of that amendment on Nov. 10 stunned both lawmakers and the public — perhaps no one more so than longtime Pilgrim opponent Diane Turco, president of the Cape Downwinders.
“Obviously, Gov. Baker wasn’t listening to the people,” said Turco. With the veto, Turco said, Baker has “completely failed the democratic process and the people he was elected to serve.”
State Rep. Sarah Peake expressed her own outrage at the governor’s veto. “He did it without even so much as a heads-up to the Cape and Islands and Plymouth delegations,” Peake said. The Provincetown Democrat is the 2nd Assistant House Majority Leader.
Peake said options for immediate action are limited. “I’m not sure right now what the opportunity may be for the House to return in a special session to override the vetoes in the economic development bill,” she said. “That would be my first choice, but the fallback plan will be to file this as a standalone bill as the session begins in January.”
The fact that the proposal already passed both branches as an amendment should expedite that, Peake said.
Cape & Islands Sen. Julian Cyr called the governor’s action “shocking and disappointing.”
“How shameful for the governor to impede corporate accountability and environmental stewardship with his veto pen on the way out the door,” said the Truro Democrat in an email. “Cape Codders and South Shore residents deserve better. We will not allow this callous action to prevent our voices from being heard.”
State Sen. Susan Moran of Falmouth pointed out that the amendment Baker vetoed on Nov. 10 had been adopted by legislators in July. Since then, Moran said, she met several times with members of the governor’s team in the depts. of public health and environmental protection. “At no time did anyone ever relay concerns with this important amendment,” she said.
Mark DeCristoforo, executive director of the Massachusetts Seafood Collaborative, remains optimistic despite the recent setbacks because, he said, the proposal to release the water is ultimately illegal. “We’re quite used to adversity, and the powers of greed are always difficult to overcome,” said DeCristoforo in an email. “We will carry on with the tools at our disposal.”
Holtec will present its water test results to the public at the Nov. 28 meeting of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel, a group made up of representatives from several state agencies, local leaders, and citizens.
Results will include the non-radioactive pollutants currently in the water, which Trice referred to in his letter, along with a list of radioactive elements historically present in the plant’s water, based on releases done when the plant was operating.
The radioactive compounds in the discharge are under the authority of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Agency spokesman Neil Sheehan has said Holtec can release the water without notifying the NRC as long as the release is within federal limits.