No clear solution for radioactive pools

Discharge, dispatch, dissolve or disregard?

None of Holtec’s disposal options available for the radioactive water at Indian Point’s nuclear fuel-rod cooling pools seems likely to make the public happy, even as the company continues to insist that its preferred plan of releasing the water into the Hudson River would be safe and no different from the water the plant released during its decades of operation.

The issue was raised again last week at the most recent meeting of the state’s Indian Point Decommissioning Task Force, in the context of how Holtec has handled the situation at nuclear plants it is decommissioning in Massachusetts and New Jersey. A representative for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission told The Current that any release at Indian Point would be “carefully controlled and within both NRC and Environmental Protection Agency safety limits.”

The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant in Plymouth, Massachusetts, like Indian Point, was owned and operated by Entergy before the license was transferred to Holtec for decommissioning. While the Pilgrim plant was operational, Entergy promised that it would never release radioactive wastewater into Cape Cod Bay.

“I don’t know why they made a commitment like that,” said Rich Burroni, a Holtec executive, at a previous meeting of the Indian Point Task Force. He made it clear that Entergy’s promise did not transfer to Holtec. “We have never made a commitment like that.”

Cape Cod residents have said that such a release, even if it was within allowable limits, would have a negative effect on the Bay’s commercial fishing and tourism industries. The bay is also a state ocean sanctuary and serves as a feeding ground for endangered bird and whale species.

The Environmental Protection Agency has sided with locals, informing Holtec in July that it does not have the authority to release wastewater from the spent fuel pools into the bay, no matter its levels of radioactivity. Holtec has said it still hopes to release the more than 1 million gallons at Pilgrim, and is in negotiations with Massachusetts over the appointment of a third-party inspector to confirm if the wastewater is safe.

As for the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in Forked River, New Jersey, Holtec quietly released 24,000 gallons of low-level radioactive wastewater into Oyster Creek, which flows into Barnegat Bay, over two days in early September. The NRC said the release was within safety limits.

The Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station (Holtec photo)

Unlike New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey do not have decommissioning task forces to provide oversight. At the meeting last week, members of the public said that they were not swayed by the NRC’s assurances because more than 100,000 people upstream of Indian Point get their drinking water from the Hudson.

Jacquelyn Drechsler, who lives in Rockland County, pointed out that the NRC says on its website that no dose of tritium, a radioactive isotope that would be in the wastewater, “should be acceptable if it can be avoided.”

If Holtec is not allowed to release water in the river, there are few other options for disposal. It could be stored at the site, although it’s unlikely that would receive much support from the Village of Buchanan, which contains Indian Point.

Its mayor, Theresa Knickerbocker, has said there should be no permanent storage of nuclear waste on-site, so the land can be returned to the village as quickly as possible and put to another use. That use, she said, would not be another power plant or even a renewable energy source, such as a solar farm or a battery storage facility.

David Lochbaum, a task force member and retired nuclear engineer who has worked with both Entergy at Indian Point and for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that the owners of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, which closed in 2014, shipped their wastewater in hundreds of truckloads to Idaho, where it was buried in casks.

If Holtec took a similar course, he warned that it could lead to an environmental justice issue, depending on where the wastewater was sent. Holtec is facing opposition from activists and New Mexico officials over a plan to build a “semi-permanent” nuclear waste facility in that state.

Three Mile Island may be a model for what can be done, Lochbaum said. The Pennsylvania plant, which was the site of an infamous meltdown in 1979, closed in 2019. It disposed of more than a million gallons of heavily contaminated wastewater by boiling it, releasing the contaminants into the air.

The Hudson may flow both ways, “but the wind goes all ways,” Lochbaum said. “So I’m not sure that’s a better solution” than a release into the river.

Behind The Story

Type: News

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

The Skidmore College graduate has reported for The Current since 2014 and writes the "Out There" column. Location: Beacon. Languages: English. Areas of Expertise: Environment, outdoors