Legislation will prevent discharge of wastewater into Hudson
On Friday (Aug. 18), Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a bill that will stop Holtec, the company decommissioning the Indian Point nuclear power plant, from discharging wastewater from spent fuel pools into the Hudson River.
The legislation was introduced by state Sen. Pete Harckham and Assembly Member Dana Levenberg, whose districts include Indian Point, because of opposition to a plan by Holtec to begin releasing water containing a hydrogen isotope called tritium into the river beginning in late September or early October.
The bill passed the state Senate unanimously in May and, with bipartisan support, the Assembly shortly after that.
Holtec and the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission have said that the amount of radioactive material in the wastewater would have been far below the allowable limits and no different from the dozens of routine, regulated discharges that took place over the decades the plant was in operation.
Those assurances failed to mollify elected officials or dozens of nearby municipalities, including Cold Spring, Philipstown, Beacon and Westchester County, that passed resolutions condemning the fall discharge.
Rep. Mike Lawler, a Republican whose congressional district includes Indian Point and the Highlands, said this week he was “glad to hear” that Hochul signed the legislation. “I look forward to the governor working with federal, state and local officials, as well as organized labor, local environmental activists and Holtec, to determine an environmentally safe and fiscally sound solution to eliminating the wastewater on-site,” he said in a statement.
In its own statement, Holtec said it was disappointed that Hochul enacted the bill. “We firmly believe that this legislation is preempted by federal law and that the discharge of monitored, processed and treated water would not impact the environment or the health and safety of the public,” it said. “In the interim, we will evaluate the impact to our decommissioning milestones and the overall project schedule.”
Holtec has suggested in the past that it would cut staff at the plant if the planned discharges were not allowed. A company representative said on Tuesday (Aug. 22) that it was still evaluating the impact of the legislation on its schedule and workforce. Holtec had planned to lay off 125 employees in December for reasons unrelated to the discharges, he said, but “with the delay and re-sequencing of work, there may be more.”
When asked why there was a public outcry in regard to Holtec’s proposal to discharge the wastewater, despite the practice having occurred at Indian Point for years, Harckham attributed it to “a sea change in values.”
“People are saying that no level of pollution is acceptable, and that we’re not going to use our waterways as industrial dumping grounds anymore,” he said.
In response to the same question, Levenberg said that while people have always been concerned about what was coming out of the plant, “people were kind of in the dark about it.” She credited the Indian Point Decommissioning Task Force, of which she and Harckham are members, with allowing legislators, government officials and the public to make issues such as this one more visible.
“Most people aren’t paying attention to Indian Point,” she said. “They just want it to go away.”
With the bill signed, it’s unclear what will happen to the wastewater. Harckham and Levenberg (whose district includes Philipstown) have said their preference would be to have the water stored on-site for at least 12 years, the amount of time it takes for the tritium to decay to half its current potency. But Mayor Theresa Knickerbocker of Buchanan, the village that contains Indian Point, noted that it passed a resolution to prevent any long-term storage. “So that took care of that,” she said.
Knickerbocker said that she was convinced, after hearing testimony for months from both federal experts and members of the decommissioning board, that the discharge would have been the safest disposal method, since the storage tanks are notoriously leaky and have to be vented, which will allow the wastewater to evaporate and escape into the surrounding air.
What’s Happening in Japan?
At a rally held in White Plains on Aug. 15 to put pressure on Gov. Kathy Hochul to enact a bill to ban Holtec from releasing wastewater from Indian Point into the Hudson, state Sen. Pete Harckham noted that Japan planned to soon release wastewater into the Pacific Ocean from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the site of a 2011 meltdown.
The discharge began on Thursday (Aug. 24). The country expects to release, over decades, as much as 1 million tons of water used to cool radioactive, melted fuel in the destroyed reactors.
Japan decided in 2021 to release the water from about 1,000 storage containers at the plant, and the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.S. have said they are comfortable with the plan.
As at Indian Point, the firm decommissioning the plant, Tokyo Electric, says all radioactive material will be filtered out before water is released, except tritium. After the water is “re-purified” (as of Aug. 3, about 30 percent had been treated), it will be diluted to bring the level of tritium below standards set by Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority.
“The idea is ‘just trust us,’ ” Ken Buesseler, a marine radiochemist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, told The New York Times this week. “I think they just want the cheapest, fastest solution, which is a pipe in the ocean.”
Many Japanese commercial fishermen worry that, even if the discharge is safe, the public perception that it’s not will hurt their business. Both China and South Korea banned seafood imports from Fukushima after the 2011 accident and on Thursday, China banned all seafood imports from Japan.
The fishing industry in Cape Cod, where Holtec is decommissioning the Pilgrim nuclear plant, has expressed similar concerns. Like New York, Massachusetts is blocking Holtec from releasing wastewater from the plant. Unlike at Indian Point, the Pilgrim plant did not discharge wastewater when it was in operation.
“We all want the Hudson River to be safe and clean,” she said. “But I have to go by facts and data. I can’t go by feelings and fear. And I haven’t seen any statistics or data from the anti-nuclear groups.”
The next move is for Holtec “to determine an alternate method,” Harckham said. “They may choose to litigate this, but I hope that, as a community, we can all work together with Holtec to find a more appropriate means of addressing the wastewater.”
Holtec has argued that a 2017 joint closure agreement between the state of New York, Riverkeeper and Entergy (the former owner of the plant) allows it to continue the discharges.
“If they want to make that argument, I think they’ll lose,” said Richard Webster, the former legal director for Riverkeeper and a member of the decommissioning board. “I just don’t think that’s the way the agreement is worded.”
He said that a “legal battle royale” that drags on for years would only drive up costs for Holtec and that cooperation between the various parties would be a better strategy.