PLYMOUTH — There is more to worry about than the possible discharge of a million gallons of radioactive water from the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station into Cape Cod Bay. That was the message at Monday’s meeting here of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel (NDCAP).
The panel of citizens, local officials, and representatives from a handful of state agencies was told by officials of Laborers’ Union Local 721 that 60 skilled workers have been “locked out” by plant owner Holtec International.
The union workers, the officials said, have been involved in Pilgrim’s maintenance for several decades and more recently in the decommissioning of the plant. “We built that plant; we maintained that plant; we took pride in going in there,” said Scott Gustafson, the union’s regional organizer and a Plymouth resident.
The lockout is related to some remarks made by a national union member to a top Holtec official, Gustafson said.
Holtec is reportedly now replacing the unionized laborers with untrained workers who don’t know the jobs or the related safety standards, according to Andrew Marshall, the union’s business manager. “These people are inexperienced,” said Marshall. “This isn’t about unions. This is about safety for the public and the people working there.”
Marshall said the lockout isn’t about money. He said replacement workers were being paid 25 cents per hour more than the union’s workers make. He added that Holtec was having difficulty finding replacements who could successfully pass the required tests.
The news of the lockout left the advisory panel and members of the public dismayed. “From what these guys are saying,” said Plymouth resident Joanne Corrigan, “they’ve got Homer Simpson running the plant.”
David Noyes, Holtec’s senior compliance manager at Pilgrim, assured the panel there was no cause for alarm. “People on this committee can sleep at night,” he said.
Noyes blamed the lockout on the laborers’ union, saying its members had refused to sign a contract.
But Marshall said the laborers did sign a contract in 2019 and that it doesn’t expire until September 2022.
The trouble is, responded Noyes, the union’s contract is with a company called Comprehensive Decommissioning International (CDI) and Holtec is no longer using that company as its decommissioning contractor.
CDI was a joint venture formed by Holtec and SNC-Lavalin, a Canadian company with experience in decommissioning. That venture fell apart in January because of a dispute, Holtec spokesman Patrick O’Brien said at the time.
Holtec Decommissioning International then took over from CDI. O’Brien had said CDI workers were simply transferred to Holtec Decommissioning. But that did not happen for the workers in Laborers’ Union Local 721.
Following Monday’s meeting, Mary Lampert, an NDCAP member and longtime Pilgrim watchdog, said she saw the lockout as a safety concern. She said she worried about the loss of trained workers and that other employees might hesitate to disclose problems at the plant for fear of being locked out.
NRC Says Nothing to Fear
At the same March 28 meeting where the union workers lockout was discussed, a top regional official of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission delivered his own message: the public has nothing to fear from the release of one million gallons of radioactive water from the closed Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station into Cape Cod Bay.
Plenty of people attending the meeting vehemently disagreed, asking the NRC if it had considered how the currents would cause the irradiated water to stall in Cape Cod Bay and whether the agency looked at potential economic effects on regional industries like shellfishing and tourism, in addition to adverse health effects.
The radioactive water comes from the plant’s spent fuel pool, reactor cavity, and other systems. It would be released in small batches into the bay.
Holtec has two other options for getting rid of the contaminated water. Evaporation, the company has said, would require a considerable amount of heat and possibly the use of diesel generators. Trucking the waste offsite is a second alternative. But releasing the water into the bay appears to be the company’s favored strategy.
Anthony Dimitriadis, the NRC’s branch chief for the region, offered a slide presentation during Monday’s meeting to show how radioactive releases, which were ongoing while the plant operated, were always well below the allowed annual limits for the exposure to the human body. One hundred millirems is the limit set by his organization, while 25 millirems is the limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The branch chief discussed monitoring and noted that sampling of sediment, shellfish, and finfish at the end of the plant’s discharge canal had not shown evidence of contamination. Testing does not appear to have taken place along the shoreline of Cape Cod Bay, however, where an expert from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has said currents would carry the radioactive water from Pilgrim.
NDCAP member Mary Lampert cited several laws that protect the bay as an ocean sanctuary. “They would not be allowed to dump if the state enforces the laws on the books,” she said. She added that the Supreme Court had said the state would have authority to prohibit the dumping if it were determined to have an economic impact. Fishing and shellfishing are major industries in the region.
Lampert also brought up the NRC standard for radiation dosage known as ALARA, which stands for “as low as reasonably achievable.”
“Obviously, dumping will not accomplish this,” Lampert said. Holtec can meet the ALARA standard by trucking the water offsite to a disposal facility, she said.
Dimitriadis talked about tritium, a radionuclide that binds with water and can’t be filtered out, characterizing it as “the least hazardous isotope.” Lampert disagreed, saying it can cause health effects.
Pine duBois, NDCAP’s co-chair, said she was concerned about marine life. “We’re so much bigger than what lives in the bay,” duBois said. “At what level would it be dangerous to organisms in the bay?”
Dimitriadis said the main focus has been on human health. “How does tritium affect shellfish? I don’t know,” he said.
Local businessman Paul Quintal, who serves on the Plymouth Harbor Commission and runs a fishing boat, said the town has spent $20 million dredging the harbor and $4 million on a wharf that is designed to catch fuel spills. The town has a 135-page harbor management plan, he said, to protect its natural resources. “Would you want to eat a fish that had even a hint of contamination?” he asked Dimitriadis.
James Lampert, Mary’s husband and an attorney, asked whether the Nuclear Regulatory Commission considers economic effects, effects on endangered species, and the effect of cumulative radiation. He also asked whether the NRC looks at site-specific issues such as water circulation patterns.
“Do you look at where the discharge is likely to stay?” Lampert asked. “My fear is that you do not look at any of those.”