PLYMOUTH — The Mass. attorney general’s office has doubled down on a recent statement saying that Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station’s permits prohibit the release of radioactive water into Cape Cod Bay.
The news that the plant is on Attorney General Maura Healey’s radar brought some relief to opponents. But those who are determined to stop Pilgrim’s owner from dumping a million gallons of contaminated water into the bay remain wary.
Holtec International, the company that owns Pilgrim and is decommissioning it, said last fall that there are three options for getting rid of the water from the spent fuel pool and other systems: “overboarding” it, which means releasing it into the bay; shipping it to a disposal facility; or evaporating it, which entails its dispersal into the clouds and eventual return in the form of precipitation.
Healey’s office issued a statement on Feb. 2 saying that Pilgrim’s permits prohibit the discharge of spent fuel pool water and wastewater into Cape Cod Bay, and the attorney general expected Holtec to “abide by those rules.”
Further information provided by Healey’s office to the Independent this week elaborated on its earlier statement. The office cited the water discharge permit for the plant, issued by the state Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in January 2020, as the basis for its conclusion that release of contaminated water into the bay during decommissioning was not allowed.
“Our office will take any violation of Holtec’s permits seriously — especially one that could pose a threat to public health and safety,” said Chloe Gotsis, Healey’s spokeswoman. “We are continuing to coordinate with our state agencies to monitor this and are prepared to take action if needed.”
The federal Clean Water Act prohibits the discharge of a wide array of pollutants into waterways unless authorized by a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. But radionuclides are not on the statute’s list of pollutants, nor are they in the plant’s discharge permit. Those are under the jurisdiction of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has historically allowed such releases into waterways by nuclear plants.
The DEP and EPA have the power to prohibit the release of the water based on the presence of pollutants other than radionuclides. But the water has yet to be tested and its components identified.
“If this option were to proceed to the next step, scientists and regulators would need to have more detailed information about what exactly would be contained in the discharge,” said Richard Delaney, former executive director and now senior adviser to the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown. The bay and coastal waters are already affected by a wide array of pollution ranging from excessive nitrogen to other chemicals like PFAS, Delaney said. “To add another accumulated insult to the Cape Cod Bay ecosystem makes no sense at all,” he said.
The fishing communities both on and off Cape Cod have been loudly protesting any release of radioactive water into the bay, saying it will have a devastating effect on the industry.
Mark DeCristoforo, executive director of the Mass. Seafood Collaborative, said his organization was “appreciative” of the attorney general’s statement, but added, “We need more.”
“Holtec has dug their heels in on this, based on every public statement the company has made,” DeCristoforo said. “It’s important for the legislature to pass one of the two bills now in committee and for the governor to sign it.”
Emergency bills prohibiting the release of radioactive water into any of the state’s waterways have been submitted by the region’s legislators. Their provisions carry fines for violators. It’s not the fines that might cause Holtec to think twice, DeCristoforo said, it’s the negative press a violation would generate.
Legislators, environmental activists, and the general public all oppose the plan to release the water, said Andrew Gottlieb, executive director of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod. His organization will focus on the ways the state can legally block the option.
“How do we get in Holtec’s way, and how do we get the NRC out of the way?” Gottlieb asked.
Public reaction has had some effect, said Gottlieb. Facing protests, Holtec backpedaled, saying it would not release any water into the bay in 2022 while it studied all its options.
But after this year, the release of the water into the bay still appears to be the company’s top choice. Kelly Trice, president of Holtec Decommissioning International, has argued against the alternatives, citing in a recent open letter the potential for accidents in trucking the water away. And evaporation, he said, would require large quantities of electricity and possibly the use of a diesel generator to produce heat.
DeCristoforo said even smaller entities like local governments can help stop Holtec’s plan by implementing their own ordinances, which is being considered in Duxbury.
Holtec should be thinking long-term, because it has acquired several reactors and will be decommissioning all of them, said Gottlieb.
“They are going to run into this every place they are decommissioning, so it would behoove them to set a standard here that they can replicate elsewhere to avoid this kind of conflict,” he said.