PLYMOUTH — Watchdogs who had tracked the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station’s faltering performance in its final years were relieved when the reactor was permanently shut down in 2019.
But that feeling was short-lived.
Holtec Decommissioning International, the company that purchased the shuttered reactor and is decommissioning it, announced late in 2021 that it planned to release 1.1 million gallons of radioactive water from the plant’s spent fuel pool and other systems into Cape Cod Bay. The news mobilized state and federal legislators who represent the region, those working in the seafood and tourist industries, environmental groups, and individuals.
The year 2022 has seen a bitter back and forth between Holtec and the public about whether the release should be allowed.
At first, the public outcry prompted Holtec to commit to no water releases in 2022 while the company looked at other options. Those include evaporating the water, trucking it to a licensed disposal facility, or storing it onsite. Holtec decision makers, however, never took the release off the table.
Maura Healey, now the governor-elect, said as state attorney general that she intended to block Holtec’s planned release because it would violate state and federal wastewater discharge permits.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency sent letters to Holtec advising the company that its current discharge permit would not allow the release of spent fuel pool water. A modification to the permit would be required, the EPA said — and review of an application to modify a permit could take up to a year.
The company has not, however, applied for the needed modification, although Holtec spokesman Patrick O’Brien said last week that the company plans to file that request “in the near future.”
In early May, U.S. Sen. Edward Markey held a Congressional field hearing in Plymouth. During the hearing, Holtec’s Krishna Singh said that the public was “vilifying the water as somehow inimical to the biological ecosystem.”
At the hearing, Markey secured a commitment from Singh to allow representatives from the state’s depts. of Environmental Protection and Public Health to be present when samples are drawn from the spent fuel pool, reactor cavity, and other systems.
Those samples are being taken now, and the DEP will test them for nonradioactive contaminants that come under the company’s water discharge permit, while the DPH will identify radioactive elements in the samples. Results will then be forwarded to a panel of scientists selected by Sen. Markey.
Information on the sampling will be presented publicly at the next meeting of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel at the end of January.
The state legislators representing Cape Cod also worked to stop the release of the wastewater into the bay but were not successful. An amendment to the economic development bill to establish a commission to do a two-year study of the effects of the release won unanimous support from both the House and Senate in November, only to be vetoed by Gov. Charlie Baker.
“Though this was obviously not what we were hoping for, I am still encouraged by the progress we are making at holding Holtec accountable,” wrote state Sen. Susan Moran, who represents the Plymouth and Barnstable district, in an email to the Independent. “I was encouraged to hear last week that the EPA clearly stated to the company that any moves to release the water before a new permit is issued would subject the company to fines and possible criminal charges.”
Kelly Trice, president of Holtec Decommissioning International, responded to the EPA letter with his own letter, sent Dec. 19. Trice said that statements a company representative had made during a Nov. 28 public meeting in Plymouth “were misconstrued to imply that Holtec is contemplating intentional noncompliance with the Clean Water Act.”
“This is not true,” said Trice in his letter. “Please be assured that we will only discharge when in full compliance with all state and federal regulations and permitted requirements.”
Sen. Markey welcomed the news. “I’m glad that Holtec has finally committed to following the law,” he wrote in a statement.
Holtec has said the wastewater at the plant will continue to be used throughout the first quarter of 2023 to shield workers as they dismantle radioactive components underwater.
Both Sen. Moran and state Rep. Sarah Peake have said they plan to refile the amendment that Baker vetoed as a separate bill when the new legislative session begins in January.