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'Confusion' led to false impression Holtec would dump radioactive water into Cape Cod Bay by April, NRC says

Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station
Holtec International
Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says confusion on the part of its own staff may have led to recent news reports that radioactive water would be released into Cape Cod Bay before the end of March.

NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan told CAI in an interview that an agency staff member may have misunderstood information communicated at one of the routine meetings the NRC holds with Holtec, the company decommissioning the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station.

The March date may have been preliminary, he said, or the date may have pertained to discharge of non-radioactive liquids — for which Holtec already has a permit.

“Our staff heard about this during one of these update calls,” he said. “There may have been a communications breakdown in terms of exactly what was planned by the company.”

The Cape Cod Times reported last weekend that, in an email to Congressman Bill Keating’s staff, an employee of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Holtec planned to discharge radioactive water into Cape Cod Bay in the first quarter of next year.

Sheehan told CAI the NRC staffer seems to have not understood whether the plans were final or what kind of liquid Holtec was planning to release.

“It appears there was some confusion about whether this was preliminary information, and also the confusion between the discharge of liquid radioactive effluent versus discharge of other liquids,” he said.

In a subsequent email to CAI, Sheehan said Holtec discussed discharging “effluent” during that time frame, but the timing was “preliminary.” He also said Holtec was planning to brief the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on plans for activity allowed under its non-nuclear discharge permit.

“Preliminary milestones for decommissioning activities at the site indicated resumption of liquid effluent discharges in the first quarter of 2022,” he wrote in the email. “Holtec explained to NRC staff that the company committed to briefing the EPA and the state on its plans as related to the NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permit. The company explained that the briefing was not yet scheduled but would occur in the first quarter of calendar year 2022 before any discharges.”

Holtec spokesman Patrick O’Brien said the company conveyed to the NRC that it would no longer need the radioactive water by the end of March and could be ready to discharge it. But he said the company had not finalized plans to do so.

Holtec has since pledged not to discharge the water until at least 2023.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.