PLYMOUTH — Officials and citizens groups that have spent two years fighting to block Holtec Decommissioning International from dumping 1.1 million gallons of radioactive wastewater from the Pilgrim nuclear plant into Cape Cod Bay learned on Aug. 16 that the company is already releasing some of that water — not into the bay but into the air in the form of gaseous effluent through a vent in the reactor building.
Holtec and federal officials say the company is releasing only a very small portion of the wastewater as part of its reactor cleanup process.
But an unsigned letter sent this week from an apparent whistleblower to the state Dept. of Public Health and to Diane Turco, director of the Cape Downwinders, an advocacy group opposing the release, says Holtec plans to “boil away the water volume” using submerged heaters. The use of those heaters, the letter suggests, indicates the company plans larger releases through evaporation.
“Holtec takes no responsibility for putting dangerous radionuclides into our environment,” Turco said. “The company’s priority is profit. We are acceptable collateral damage.”
On Tuesday, Neil Sheehan, spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), said he was aware of the unsigned letter. “The answer for now is that we are reviewing this, including whether this constitutes an allegation,” Sheehan said. “We would note that we addressed the use of the submersion heaters in our latest inspection report for the Pilgrim nuclear plant,” he added.
Federal inspectors discovered submerged heaters were being used when they did a routine check of Pilgrim in June. Holtec had not notified the NRC that it had installed immersion heaters in February in the wastewater-filled reactor cavity.
The purpose, Holtec officials said, was to speed the drying time for waste boxes holding irradiated segments of the reactor’s internal parts when they were removed from the cavity. How much water is evaporated in the process depends on how much residual water is left in each of the waste boxes.
Neither Holtec nor the NRC could provide information on the amount of wastewater that’s been released in gaseous form.
The inspectors reviewed documents and interviewed staff to determine whether the process met federal offsite dose standards. In their report, NRC inspectors concluded there was “reasonable justification” for adding submersion heaters, and that the changes had not required NRC approval.
The Independent provided Holtec spokesman Patrick O’Brien with a copy of the anonymous letter, but he would not directly answer questions regarding allegations that the company plans large-scale evaporation of the wastewater.
“The use of heaters to support habitability and solid waste packaging from vessel segmentation was referenced in the most recent NRC inspection report and found to have no issues or violations,” O’Brien said in an email. In addition, O’Brien wrote, “Evaporative releases have occurred since 1972 and are monitored and reported as part of required environmental reporting annually.”
During Pilgrim’s operation, it was common practice to release hundreds of thousands of gallons annually of gaseous effluent caused by the heat coming off the spent fuel pool where radioactive fuel assemblies were being stored. But since the transfer of the spent fuel rods into concrete casks, the pool no longer generates heat that causes evaporation.
There is no longer continuous radiation monitoring at the reactor building’s vent, but the filters are sampled weekly or twice a month for the presence of tritium and other radionuclides, Sheehan said. As long as the emissions remain within the federal limits for effluents that are “as low as reasonably achievable,” Holtec can continue to evaporate wastewater with no need to report on it beyond its annual report of effluent releases due next spring.
James Lampert, a longtime critic of the Plymouth nuclear plant and a member of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel (NDCAP), is skeptical about the evaporation being limited, given that Sheehan’s comments confirm that “at least some of what has been evaporated is the wastewater that Pilgrim wants to dump,” Lampert said. “He calls it ‘a small portion’ but leaves wide open how big a portion will eventually be evaporated and when.”
Evaporation of at least some of the million gallons of contaminated wastewater is one of the alternatives to releasing it into Cape Cod Bay, but it is probably not a good choice in terms of public health. At a past meeting of the NDCAP, Jack Priest, a panel member and director of the radiation control program for the state Dept. of Public Health, called both the release into the bay and evaporation “lousy choices.”
“If you’re evaporating the water, it eventually makes its way to the ground wherever the cloud floats to,” Priest said.
Holtec has said that evaporation of the 1.1 million gallons of wastewater would not be cost effective, based on the amount of energy it would take to heat the water.
Mary Lampert, an NDCAP member and president of the Pilgrim Watch citizens group, said that the decommissioning process is new to everyone. “In 2019-2020, we and the state were all focused on the site cleanup and never considered the wastewater issue,” she said. “Then we became immersed in wastewater, and now it’s air emissions.”
The bottom line, Mary Lampert said, is that “Holtec is monitoring itself and keeping us in the dark about its releases.”
The state Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP) will hold a hearing at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 24 in Plymouth Town Hall to gather public comment on its recent draft decision to deny Holtec an amendment to its surface discharge permit that the company needs to release the wastewater into the bay. The draft decision is based on the state’s Ocean Sanctuaries Act, which prohibits the release of industrial waste into a designated ocean sanctuary. Cape Cod Bay is so designated.
Based on the large number of comments submitted on the draft denial, DEP has arranged for a second room to be available at the town hall for those attending the hearing.
Several towns and environmental organizations on Cape Cod have submitted comments supporting DEP’s draft denial. Both the Barnstable County Assembly of Delegates and the county commissioners have approved resolutions supporting the denial and submitted those to the DEP as comments.
The Save Our Bay coalition has scheduled a rally in front of Plymouth Town Hall for 5 p.m. on Aug. 24.