PLYMOUTH — Cape Cod Bay is not a good place to dump one million gallons of radioactive effluent from systems at Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, according to an expert on ocean currents at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The contaminated water would be trapped there rather than filtering quickly into the ocean.
The shape of the land creates a semi-enclosed space. “Whatever is put in the bay would stay there a long time,” said senior scientist and oceanographer Irina Rypina. “It wouldn’t flush out quickly.
“A tracer released into Cape Cod Bay would recirculate and stay in the waters within the bay for a long time,” Rypina continued, “and then will likely end up in the sediment on the ocean floor or on the beaches inside the bay.”
The same thing would happen to the radionuclides in the released water, said Rypina, confirming the fears of the Cape’s fishing community and coastal property owners.
Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station permanently shut down in May 2019 and was purchased by Holtec International, the private company now decommissioning it. After a plan to consider release of the radioactive water from Pilgrim’s spent fuel pool, reactor cavity, and other systems into the bay caused a public outcry, Holtec announced it had put the decision on hold for 2022.
This week one legislator launched his own pre-emptive attack.
State Rep. Josh Cutler, a Democrat from Duxbury, filed an emergency bill that prohibits the discharge of “any solid or liquid radioactive material directly or indirectly in any coastal or inland waters.” Violators would be fined $5,500 for a first offense and up to $15,000 for each subsequent offense.
The bill would also hold Holtec liable for any damages incurred by a discharge of the radioactive water, both to private citizens and the state.
The Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens’ Advisory Panel, a group of citizens and state agency representatives offering advice on Pilgrim’s decommissioning, learned at its November meeting that Holtec saw “overboarding” the nuclear waste as an option. Panel member Seth Pickering, deputy regional director of the state Dept. of Environmental Protection, said the release of the effluent would be under the authority of the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission rather than the state.
The state’s water discharge permit for the nuclear plant, called the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, regulates a whole array of contaminants, which will be looked at prior to any release, but not radionuclides, Pickering said.
Mary Lampert, president of Pilgrim Watch and an advisory panel member, believes the state isn’t powerless. Holtec wants the state and the community to believe they have no authority, Lampert said in a phone interview. “We have to take away the myth that you can’t do anything,” Lampert said. “The big issue is for the state to exercise the authority it has and stop hiding behind ‘the NRC controls all factors to do with nuclear.’ ”
Lampert and her husband, Jim, an attorney, plan to submit a statement to the advisory panel at its Jan. 31 meeting that includes a half dozen ways the state can exert its authority to stop any dumping of radioactive water into the bay. The Lamperts cite past court rulings that establish that the federal laws regulating the nuclear industry do not preempt state laws regarding the health and safety of citizens.
The Lamperts also point to provisions in the settlement agreement hammered out between the Baker administration and Holtec in 2020, in which Holtec agreed to “comply with all applicable environmental and human-health based standards and regulations of the Commonwealth.”
A total of 37 states, including Massachusetts, have agreements with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that allow them to oversee the use of nuclear materials within their borders that would otherwise be under the oversight of the federal agency. But the agreements are limited, according to an NRC spokesman.
“Agreement States do not take on responsibility for activities at power and research reactors that, under the Atomic Energy Act, are under the jurisdiction of the NRC,” said Neil Sheehan. That is why, he said, “the NRC remains responsible for overseeing any discharge of radioactive effluents from a nuclear plant.”
Vermont officials took a different approach for discharges at Vermont Yankee, forging the state’s own agreement with plant owner Entergy Corp. and prohibiting release of radioactive effluent into the Connecticut River. Vermont Yankee shut down in late 2014 and NorthStar Group Services purchased it from Entergy in 2019.
NorthStar was aware of the agreement with Entergy on plant effluent and has continued to comply with it, according to a company spokesman. NorthStar shipped about two million gallons of radioactive water off site last year to disposal facilities in Tennessee and Idaho.
What’s in the Water?
Woods Hole senior scientist Ken Buesseler, a marine radiochemist, said, “Until we have an accounting of what different radioactive elements will be released and their concentrations, the impact of one million gallons is impossible to evaluate.” What’s needed are the actual values, by isotope, detection limit, and volume, for the stored water today, not the amounts after the required dilution before the release.
“Radioactive contaminants have vastly different fates in the ocean depending on their chemical nature,” Buesseler wrote in an email. “Some dilute and mix and are transported the same as the water (like tritium), others are more likely to be associated with marine sediments (like cobalt-60) and others accumulate in marine biota (usually cesium isotopes and strontium-90 are of concern).”
Yvonne Barocas of Wellfleet voiced a perspective expressed by many residents on Cape Cod. “The entire list of potential hazards from dumping water with radioactive waste is dismal — harm to our sea life that we work so hard to protect, economic damage to our shellfishermen’s livelihoods, and health hazards in our environment,” Barocas said.
The region’s legislators at all levels are applying pressure on Holtec. Congressmen Bill Keating and Seth Moulton and Senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren sent a letter to Kelly Trice, president of Holtec Decommissioning International, saying the proposed discharge “would only further burden the community surrounding Pilgrim, which has already borne the negative environmental impacts of the nuclear plant for more than 40 years.”
On the Cape, the County Commissioners and Assembly of Delegates wrote to Gov. Baker and the region’s legislators, urging them to act to protect the public and economic health of the Cape.
In its letter, Wellfleet’s select board wrote: “From a human health perspective, the potential for bioaccumulation of radiation in shellfish and finfish that are used as food sources is of great concern to us. These health concerns also translate into potential threats to our coastal economy, with ramifications for our commercial fisheries and the many businesses that rely on tourism dollars.” Just the perception that shellfish from here could be “somehow tainted” will significantly affect the livelihoods of the fishing community, the select board wrote.
Senators Cyr and Moran and Rep. Sarah Peake plan to meet on Jan. 28 with representatives from the Dept. of Environmental Protection, Dept. of Public Health, and the Attorney General’s Office to discuss the situation.
Cyr plans to “get confirmation concerning the status of the environmental monitoring program.” Under the agreement between Holtec and the state, money provided by Holtec to the Dept. of Public Health for monitoring food crops, milk, sediments, fish, and shellfish for levels of radioactivity will drop dramatically now that all the spent fuel is stored in dry casks. Payments to DPH were over $500,000 for 2021, but will drop to $250,000 in 2023. Cyr questioned whether that latter amount would be adequate.
Cyr said he was aware the practice of releasing radioactive water into the bay had been ongoing during the plant’s operation. “I fear we may be limited in what we can do as a state, given the NRC oversees decommissioning, and this is why I have pushed so hard for monitoring,” he said.
“Citizens Speak Out to Save the Bay” has been set for 5 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 31 at Plymouth Town Hall, organized by the Cape Downwinders, Pilgrim Watch, and the Plymouth Area League of Women Voters. Sen. Markey and Rep. Keating plan to send video statements that will be played. Other speakers include Mark DeCristoforo, executive director of the Mass. Seafood Collaborative; Beth Casoni, executive director of the Mass. Lobstermen’s Association; state Sen. Susan Moran; other legislators; and representatives from several environmental organizations. The advisory panel’s meeting was slated for 6:30 p.m. in the same meeting room, but will now be held via Zoom. The meeting room at the town hall will be set up so that those at the rally can participate in the Zoom meeting, according to Cape Downwinder President Diane Turco.