PLYMOUTH — The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station had slowly drifted out of the public’s consciousness in the years since the troubled reactor’s final shutdown in 2019. But the region’s residents were recently jolted back to a state of vigilance by the news that Holtec International, the company decommissioning the Plymouth plant, might release one million gallons of radioactive water into Cape Cod Bay.
It turns out that’s been going on for years. A document provided by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) indicated Pilgrim operators have already released over 720,000 gallons into Cape Cod Bay in batches in 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2017.
Public outcry prompted a temporary reprieve on proposed new releases when Holtec, on Dec. 6, pledged not to release any radioactive water into the bay during 2022. The company will be using the year to consider its options and conduct outreach to the public.
Cape Cod’s fishing and shellfishing communities, and other watchdog groups, are mobilizing to do the same.
Shellfishermen Speak Out
At last week’s meeting of the Barnstable County Board of Regional Commissioners, member Mark Forest said he has heard a tremendous outcry from shellfishermen across the Cape regarding a possible release of radioactive water. “It’s just outrageous what’s being discussed, and Barnstable County should get on the record,” Forest said.
Wellfleet shellfisherman Jake Puffer called it “shocking” to hear the option was even being considered. “Every organization that has a stake in the bay would be against it,” Puffer said. “I don’t understand how this wouldn’t be a hard ‘no’ from anybody who oversees the bay.”
Countywide, 265 growers landed around 26 million oysters with a value of $14.5 million in 2018, according to the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension website. Wellfleet was the top producer on the Cape that year, landing 10.74 million oysters, valued at $5.75 million, according to the state’s Div. of Marine Fisheries.
“A mere pause is not sufficient,” wrote Mark DeCristoforo, executive director of the Mass. Seafood Collaborative, in a letter to Holtec that called for the option of releasing the radioactive water to be eliminated altogether.
Limits and Options
The NRC sets limits on how much radiation a nuclear plant’s effluent can contain when it is released into a body like Cape Cod Bay, with the plant owners themselves doing the monitoring, according to NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan.
The radioactive water goes through a treatment system, sits in storage tanks, and then gets released in batches of 20,000 gallons — the idea being to keep the contamination below federal limits. But Mary Lampert, director of the Pilgrim Watch group who also sits on the citizens’ advisory panel for the decommissioning process, is worried.
“Where the water is coming from is something to be concerned about” with the current batch, Lampert said. About a third of the contaminated water would come from a massive pool where radioactive spent fuel rods were stored during the plant’s 46 years of operation. Another third is from the reactor cavity, which had been flooded so that the highly radioactive reactor could be dismantled underwater. The rest would come from other plant systems.
There are other ways of disposing of radioactive water, include trucking it offsite for disposal elsewhere and eliminating some of it through an evaporation system, according to Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “In this case, there are options,” Lyman said. “It’s a deliberate choice to discharge this water rather than packaging it and shipping it.”
Lampert is not optimistic. She believes Holtec will push to release the radioactive water because that’s what the NRC will allow — even if that is not the safest option.
Diane Turco, director of the Cape Downwinders, is urging the public to contact the region’s legislative delegation and to attend the meeting of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 24 in Plymouth Town Hall. Citizen groups have planned a “speak out” beforehand, starting at 5:30 p.m.
Lampert said she will move at the start of the meeting to focus the evening solely on what is going to happen to Pilgrim’s radioactive water. She hopes the fishing community will attend and speak out against dumping the water into the bay. She thinks property owners, businesspeople, and regional legislators will also get involved.
“Do you really want to have radioactive water coming up on your beach?” Lampert said.
State Rep. Sarah Peake of Provincetown said in a statement that the region’s legislators are “collectively concerned” about environmental impacts to Cape Cod Bay and “its fragile and important ecosystem.” The delegation has asked to meet with representatives from the attorney general’s office, the Dept. of Public Health, and the Dept. of Environmental Protection “to discuss next steps and to collectively advocate for our constituents.”
‘Barney Fife’ Level Security
The radioactive water isn’t the only concern of plant watchdogs. The Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan agency that oversees government functions, has called the hot and highly radioactive spent fuel from nuclear reactors one of the most hazardous substances ever created by humans.
Pilgrim’s 4,000 spent fuel assemblies are now stored in 62 steel-and-concrete dry casks that sit on a cement pad in plain view from Rocky Hill Road in Plymouth. A low wall and chain-link fence provide the only barriers.
Meanwhile, Holtec is reducing the number of personnel at the plant. Spokesman Patrick O’Brien said there are currently 140 employees, but the company will reduce that to 60 on Jan. 6.
David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer who was formerly the longtime director of nuclear safety for the Union of Concerned Scientists and now sits on the board overseeing the decommissioning of the Indian Point nuclear plant in New York, is concerned about the ways plants reduce security once they are shut down.
At that point, Lochbaum said, “the NRC scales back to not quite ‘Barney Fife’ level” — referring to the fictional small-town deputy sheriff in the 1960s television program The Andy Griffith Show.
Lampert agreed with Lochbaum’s suggestion that the casks should be encased in earth berms, a protection method used at other storage sites. Most plant owners won’t voluntarily install the earth berms as long as federal regulators don’t make it a requirement, Lochbaum said.