Keating: Pilgrim owner backs off plan to discharge radioactive water into Cape Cod Bay early next year

Components at Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth hold approximately 1 million gallons of radioactive water from its reactor and steam generation systems, and its spent fuel cooling system, according to the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. David L Ryan/Globe Staff/file

The owner of Plymouth’s closed Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station backed off a plan to discharge radioactive water into Cape Cod Bay early next year, a move that will give the public and elected leaders a chance to weigh in on how to safely remove the material from the facility, US Representative William Keating said on Saturday.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission had notified Keating’s office Wednesday that plant owner Holtec International planned to discharge “liquid effluents” from the facility sometime in the first quarter of 2022, according to an e-mail shared with the Globe Friday.

Keating criticized the company Friday for a lack of transparency around the decision, which was revealed by the federal agency days after company officials said during a November community meeting they would come up with a final plan over the next six to 12 months.

On Friday night, Holtec spokesman Patrick O’Brien notified Keating’s office it would hold off on those plans, Keating said.

“Last night, they contacted our office and said that their position is now that there is no final decision, and I think that is welcome news for our congressional delegation [and] for the public,” Keating said in an interview Saturday. “We are now afforded with a chance for greater input, and hopefully public vetting on the issue, too.”

He wants the company to consider alternatives, including transporting that water to a secure site, rather than releasing it into the bay.

“This will afford us the opportunity to have more discussion on this [and] the public has the opportunity to be heard on this as well,” Keating said.

Holtec took over Pilgrim in 2019, after receiving the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s approval. In June 2020, the company reached an agreement with Massachusetts authorities on the safety and financial terms for decommissioning the plant.

The power plant components hold approximately 1 million gallons of radioactive water from its reactor and steam generation systems, and its spent fuel cooling system, according to a statement Saturday from the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Holtec is reviewing the option of discharging that water into Cape Cod Bay in batches of about 20,000 gallons each, the statement said.

The company has already notified federal and state agencies, including the US Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Public Health, and Department of Environmental Protection, the statement said.

On Saturday, O’Brien, the Holtec spokesman, told the Globe that no decision has been made about how to manage the processed water at the plant.

O’Brien provided a copy of the Keating e-mail to the Globe Saturday.

“I have reconfirmed both last night and today with the site’s leadership no final decision on how to manage the processed water remaining has been finalized and multiple options remain under consideration,” O’Brien said in a text message. “I wanted to ensure nothing had changed from what had been told to me after seeing the [Wednesday] e-mail from NRC to the congressman.”

During a Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel late last month, O’Brien said the company told attendees that they are looking at all options allowed under the plant’s permit, but no decision had been made.

Following the NRC e-mail to Keating’s office Wednesday, Keating, Senator Edward Markey, and local advocates criticized Holtec for planning to discharge water from the spent fuel pool at the facility, which was closed in 2019. They warned about the potential impact to the environment, and the effect on the region’s fishing and tourism industries.

Markey, who is chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Climate, Clean Air, and Nuclear Safety, criticized Holtec and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for their handling of Pilgrim in a statement.

“Holtec and NRC have consistently prioritized savings over safety in the Pilgrim nuclear plant decommissioning process. Holtec is getting billions from ratepayers, so local participation, transparency, and safety must be central to any and all decisions made during the decommissioning process for Pilgrim,” Markey said in the statement.

Representatives for the NRC did not respond to requests for comment Saturday.

O’Brien, on Saturday, said safety at the plant is “our #1 priority.”

“We have not made a final decision and I stand by that statement,” he said.

Edwin Lyman, the director of Nuclear Power Safety for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said Holtec made the right call by putting on hold “its dubious and potentially dangerous plan.”

“The company should take the time to thoroughly assess all feasible options and seek broad public input,” Lyman said in an e-mail. “We’ve feared from the beginning that Holtec will try to cut corners on public health, safety, and environmental protection in order to make a profit from its decommissioning business, and this unfortunate proposal only underscores that concern.”

Nathan Phillips, a professor with Boston University’s Earth & Environmental Department, praised news that the company backed off its discharge plan.

Before that decision was made public, he criticized the plant’s operators and regulators for using an outdated approach — one in which the “solution to pollution is dilution,” Phillips said.

“This depends on tunnel vision that doesn’t consider cumulative impacts of all contributors to pollution in an area. We need to do things differently, and it should start now,” Phillips said in an e-mail.

Diane Turco, a cofounder of the Cape Downwinders community group, said in an e-mail Saturday that Holtec was “only looking at the bottom line.” Residents must demand health and safety for their communities and the environment.

“Holtec was called out on their poor planning, but don’t trust them to come up with a better one unless there is a lot of public pressure,” Turco said. “The decommissioning funds being used by Holtec are ratepayers monies so we should have a voice in the process.”

Mary Lampert, the director of the advocacy group Pilgrim Watch, said the state should take further action to prevent discharges into the ocean.

“Our recommendation is that the state refuse to approve Holtec’s plan unless dumping radioactive contaminated water into Cape Cod Bay is taken off the table,” Lampert said. “And, absent an approved cleanup plan issue a stop work order.”

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