PLYMOUTH — Holtec International, the company that now owns the shuttered nuclear power station here, has so far not received permission to pursue its initial plan to discharge 1.1 million gallons of radioactive wastewater into Cape Cod Bay.
But while it awaits decisions by state and federal regulators, the company has gotten rid of some 200,000 gallons of that wastewater laced with radioactive and nonradioactive contaminants by placing submerged heaters in the reactor cavity and evaporating it.
The state Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP), prompted by letters asking about the state’s ability to oversee such discharges, has decided to direct Holtec, which is now decommissioning Pilgrim, to “calculate and submit an analysis” of the potential emission of contaminants known to be in the plant’s wastewater based on sampling last April. DEP asked that Holtec’s analysis factor in any additional pollutants that may have been released in reactor system water since those samples were drawn.
Seth Pickering, deputy regional director of the Mass. DEP’s Bureau of Air and Waste, told the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel (NDCAP) at its Jan. 29 meeting that if any contaminant exceeds the threshold of one ton per year, Holtec would need a state permit to release it under air quality regulations.
Holtec’s initial plan to release contaminated wastewater stored in the spent fuel pool and other systems at the plant into the bay included treating the water first to bring radioactive contamination levels down within federal limits.
But in order to pursue that strategy, the company was required to apply for discharge permits from both the DEP and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. DEP issued a draft denial of the state permit in July, saying the discharge would violate the Ocean Sanctuaries Act because Cape Cod Bay has been designated an ocean sanctuary. The agency has not yet made a final decision.
The EPA is still conducting its review of the federal permit application.
The evaporation, the company has said, has been incidental to heating the water to keep the building warm for workers and to help shorten drying time for boxes containing irradiated pieces of the reactor after they are removed from the cavity.
But some NDCAP members, along with activists and area residents, point out that Holtec’s radioactive wastewater problem is quickly vanishing through the reactor building’s unfiltered vents.
During the advisory panel’s Jan. 29 meeting, its chair, James Lampert, asked how much wastewater was in the plant when Holtec purchased Pilgrim after its 2019 permanent shutdown. David Noyes, Holtec’s senior compliance manager, said there were about 2 million gallons.
Nearly 1 million gallons of that evaporated before January 2021, Noyes said, due to the heat being generated by the radioactive fuel assemblies stored in the spent fuel pool. Those assemblies have since been moved to large concrete and steel casks.
It’s not possible to project how long it might take to evaporate the 900,000 gallons now remaining in storage because there are too many variables, according to Noyes.
Lampert and his wife, Mary, also an NDCAP member, wrote to state officials recently, arguing that the evaporated water, laden with contaminants, ultimately ends up in Cape Cod Bay, carried by prevailing wind and falling in the form of precipitation. If discharging the wastewater into the bay is a violation of the state’s Ocean Sanctuaries Act, then evaporation would also be a violation, the Lamperts wrote.
When Mary Lampert pointed out during the NDCAP meeting that Holtec had agreed to abide by state laws in the settlement agreement with the attorney general, Noyes said the agreement doesn’t mention the Ocean Sanctuaries Act.
The agreement simply states “applicable laws,” argued Noyes. To that, Lampert responded, “Well, they weren’t talking about speeding.”
Pine duBois, an NDCAP member who was formerly the chair, praised Holtec’s practice of heating the reactor building with wastewater. “I applaud your ingenuity in this heating system, and I wish I could do it at my house,” duBois said.
DuBois went on to say, however, that she preferred Holtec’s option of discharging the water into Cape Cod Bay over evaporation. “I relate your million gallons of water to the 1.7 million gallons a day that Plymouth releases into the bay,” she said, referring to the town’s wastewater. That water, she said, “has all kinds of contaminants in it, including the stuff we’re talking about here.”
Mary Lampert disagreed. “Saying the bay is already screwed is not an argument for why we should add more,” she said.
Holtec is meanwhile fighting an unrelated battle in New Jersey, where the company is decommissioning Oyster Creek, another of its nuclear plants.
New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin issued a statement to the press on Jan. 30, announcing that the state and Holtec had reached a multimillion-dollar settlement following a criminal investigation into the company’s attempt to exploit the state’s tax credit program.
The investigation involved a 2018 application for $1 million in tax credits that Holtec and its sister company, Singh Real Estate Enterprises, claimed was due to them. Under the settlement, Holtec must pay a $5 million fine and retain an independent reviewer approved by the state for any submissions for state tax credits, loans, or other benefits during the next three years.