At the decommissioned Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth, more than 1 million gallons of radioactive waste water languish in a pool.
There are at least three ways that Holtec, the company responsible for cleaning up the site, could get rid of it, but residents are fearful that it will opt for what appears to be the cheapest: dumping the treated radioactive waste into Cape Cod Bay.
“This can’t happen,” said Betty Cavacco, a member of the Plymouth Select Board who has participated in community protests against the dumping plan.
The concerns fall into two categories: safety and economics. Although Holtec has said that water discharged from the plant while it was operational had little or no environmental impact, many residents are not convinced that dumping the remaining waste water would be safe.
“A normal, commonsense person would not want that,” said Paul Quintal, the owner of Plymouth Cruises and a member of the Plymouth Harbor Committee. “If you make your living on the water, if your kids swim in the water, you have no interest in putting radioactive material into the water.”
Then there are the potential financial impacts. “It’s more than the actual release” of the waste water, Cavacco said. “The mere perception of it will devastate Cape Cod Bay tourism and our shellfish and commercial fishing industries.”
Plymouth residents have the weight of state government and elected representatives on their side. At a hearing at Plymouth Town Hall last Friday, Senator Edward J. Markey and US Representative William Keating, whose district includes Plymouth, grilled Holtec CEO Kris Singh about the company’s plans.
Keating asked Singh how much it would cost to remove the waste water by truck, one of the other options for disposal. Singh said he didn’t know.
“That meant to me that he hadn’t considered it seriously,” Keating said Tuesday. He worries there is an “incentive for the company to dump the water because it’s less expensive,” he said.
At the hearing, Singh said he would obtain an estimate for trucking.
Markey pressed Singh to allow an independent expert to test the waste water, and the CEO acquiesced. In a Monday letter, Singh agreed not to release any waste water until an expert selected by Markey confirmed that the “radiological levels [are] low enough to ensure that the local marine life remains protected.”
Trust in the company broke down at the end of last year as Holtec seemed to say one thing publicly while planning something else behind the scenes.
At a public meeting in November, Holtec executives said that they were considering three disposal options — dumping, trucking, and evaporation — and that a final decision had not been made.
But when a staffer from Keating’s office reached out to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the NRC told him in an e-mail that “Holtec has informed the NRC that it plans to discharge liquid effluents sometime in the first quarter of 2022.”
That is, it appeared Holtec planned to dump the waste water imminently.
After the NRC email, Holtec backtracked, telling Keating’s office on Dec. 3 that it would not release any waste water before the end of 2022.
A Holtec spokesperson said in a statement Monday, “We have been consistent in our messaging since [the November] meeting that over the next year we will be evaluating the regulatory approved options available and no final decisions have been made.”
Since then, Plymouth fishermen, government officials, and everyday residents have maintained a steady drumbeat of protests. On Monday evening, several dozen protesters massed outside the old courthouse before a public meeting about NRC regulations.
The protests reflect broad-based concern in the community, said Julie Talbott, co-owner of the 3 Waves bed and breakfast. “I’ve seen posts about it on NextDoor” — a social network focused on neighborhood happenings — “and the gals in my book club are talking about it,” she said.
The sentiment in town, she added, was “we should try to stop this.”
Geoffrey Fettus, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said residents’ worries are justified. “We’re very concerned and we’re watching it carefully,” he said, noting that Holtec has released little information about the precise contents and levels of contamination of the waste water.
At the Friday hearing, Markey pressed Singh to allow independent experts to test the waste water. Singh agreed and also promised to provide information to the federal Environmental Protection Agency about the contents of the waste water, which, according to Keating, the company had not yet done.
While Pilgrim was operational, water from the bay flowed in and out of the plant to be converted to steam and as a cooling agent. But the waste water at issue today is different. It previously contained spent fuel rods so may have had longer exposure to radioactive material.
There’s also the matter of dumping the water in a semi-enclosed bay. If the waste water were released, said Irina Rypina, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, it would flow in multiple directions and some of it would “remain contained in the bay for at least several weeks.”
A spokesperson for the NRC said, “The NRC has strict requirements in place to protect the public health and safety from radioactive effluent releases made by its licensees.” The agency mandates that a nuclear power plant cannot expose members of the public to more than 100 millirems of radiation per year.
“To put that in perspective,” the spokesperson said, “the average American is exposed to about 620 millirems of radiation each year from natural and manmade sources, including nuclear power.”
At the heart of the controversy is a $1 billion trust fund that Holtec came to control when it bought the site from Entergy in 2019. The money came from fees paid by users of Pilgrim’s electricity during the plant’s nearly 50 years of operation. The fund was set aside for the eventual cleanup after the plant was decommissioned.
Now critics say it could become Holtec’s piggy bank. If there is money left over after cleanup is completed, much of it could end up in the company’s coffers, Keating said.
In the meantime, Holtec faces stout opposition to the proposed dumping plan, as locals have joined the cause. “I’d never been to a rally,” Quintal said. “But this one lights me up.”
Keating said he’s optimistic the community will stop the dumping plan. “It just doesn’t make sense when there are other viable options on the table,” he said.
Mike Damiano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.