Legislature Votes to Ban Indian Point Discharge

Storing radioactive water in tanks, like these used at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan, is an alternative at Indian Point to a river discharge. (Tokyo Electric Power Co)

Storing radioactive water in tanks, like these used at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan, is an alternative at Indian Point to a river discharge. (Tokyo Electric Power Co)

Local official also says storage tanks out of question

Holtec International, the company decommissioning the Indian Point nuclear power plant, plans to discharge 310,000 gallons of radioactive wastewater into the Hudson River starting in September and 1.3 million gallons total over two years. 

But this week those plans began to look murky, because New York State is on the verge of outlawing the discharges. In addition, the mayor of Buchanan said the village would not allow the wastewater to be stored in tanks on-site for years while its tritium decays. 

Further complicating the matter: Workers at the plant, who comprised most of the audience at the most recent meeting of the Indian Point Decommissioning Oversight Board on June 15, say they were told to expect layoffs if the discharges were banned.

Indian Point workers also protested outside the Ossining office of Assembly Member Dana Levenberg, a Democrat whose district includes Buchanan and Philipstown and who sponsored the bill that, if signed by the governor, would ban the release.

The bill, which was sponsored in the state Senate by Pete Harckham, a Democrat whose district includes Peekskill and eastern Putnam County and who chairs the Committee on Environmental Conservation, would “make it unlawful to discharge any radiological substance into the Hudson River in connection with the decommissioning of a nuclear power plant.”

An earlier version of the legislation would have banned radiological discharges into any waters of the state, but that would have had serious effects on the operation of the state’s three remaining nuclear power plants on the shores of Lake Ontario. 

The revised bill limiting the ban to the Hudson River passed the Senate unanimously on June 9 with “yes” votes from Harckham and Rob Rolison, a Republican whose district includes the Highlands, and in the Assembly, 101-44, on June 20 with support from Levenberg and Jonathan Jacobson, a Democrat whose district includes Beacon. 

The radioactivity of the discharges would be far below the legal limits and are no different from the hundreds of routine releases that took place over the last several decades at Indian Point, according to federal regulators. The Decommissioning Oversight Board said on June 15 that Holtec had agreed to allow the state Department of Environmental Conservation to conduct its own sampling of any discharge and also oversee Holtec’s testing. 

Those assurances have failed to mollify many residents, local lawmakers or environmental groups. They argue that even if the effects of the discharge are negligible, the perception of a “radioactive river” could harm the local economy and property values. 

“We cannot underestimate the impact of the public perception of a severely polluted Hudson River,” said Tracy Brown, president of Riverkeeper. “Together we have made great strides in cleaning up the Hudson. We cannot let outmoded ‘business-as-usual’ polluting practices undercut that work.”

If the water cannot be released into the Hudson, the leading alternative would involve storing it on-site during the decommissioning, which is expected to take another 12 to 15 years. Tritium has a half-life of 12.5 years, meaning that in 12.5 years the water would be half as radioactive. 

In a presentation on June 15, David Lochbaum, a retired nuclear engineer and former director of nuclear safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who is a member of the Decommissioning Oversight Board, outlined the risks of on-site storage, specifically the tanks’ tendency to leak. 

Of the 305 tanks that store water at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan, which closed in 2011 after an accident, six leaked within 30 months. The tanks must also be vented, which would allow some tritium to be released into the atmosphere. 

Although the stored wastewater would be filtered of all radioactive materials except tritium, which is extraordinarily difficult to separate, a leaking tank would still be more dangerous than an intentional discharge, Lochbaum said. The discharge planned for September, for example, would take several months, with only a portion released at a time after being further diluted. By constrast, a leak would, in Lochbaum’s estimate, be 267 to 534 times more potent. 

“If the goal is to reduce the radiation dose to as low as achievable, that would not be the best way to do it unless you’re very, very lucky and none of the tanks ever leak, evaporate or spill,” Lochbaum said. “I can survive a bee sting. I don’t know if I could survive 267 to 534 bee stings in a short period of time.”

After Lochbaum’s presentation, Theresa Knickerbocker, who has served as mayor of Buchanan since 2014, said the village “will not ever issue a permit for any tanks. So, as of tonight, you can take that off the checklist.” 

At the meeting, Levenberg, who also sits on the oversight board, asked Rich Burroni, a Holtec representative, about a letter that she said Holtec had sent to local unions stating the company would cut 100 jobs at Indian Point if it couldn’t discharge into the river. Burroni said he wasn’t familiar with the letter but confirmed that cuts would be likely. 

If Holtec can’t discharge the water, “we will have to totally change our approach to decommissioning,” he said, noting that the plant employs 690 workers, 400 of whom are union members. 

In a statement released the next day, Levenberg accused Holtec of attempting “to enlist labor in an effort to stifle public discussion of our options.”

“I heard repeatedly that there is plenty of work to be done at various points during the decommissioning process,” she said. “If this is the case, why are workers being told that their jobs are at stake” if the ban goes into effect?

The Decommissioning Oversight Board will host a public forum on July 11 with a panel of state and federal technical experts. To register, see bit.ly/dob-july-11. 

2 thoughts on “Legislature Votes to Ban Indian Point Discharge

  1. Nuclear power plants were, at their inception, as now, touted as safe and cheap — and today said to be a better choice to reduce global warming. But does anyone feel safe with tritium in their water or stored in their community?

    At the inception of nuclear power plants, some said it might be so efficient that the energy would be free. Remember that? I am guessing that the disposal of plants was never factored into the cost when nuclear power was proposed to the public.

    We are being offered a Hobson’s choice whether we are forced to store or discharge the tritium. We can only choose to make our environment less safe.

    After its half-life has passed, is tritium half as dangerous or is it still plenty dangerous to living things?

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