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Scientists weigh in on dumping of radioactive water into Cape Cod Bay

WHOI Center for Marine and Environmental Radioactivity

The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station closed in 2019, but work to contain or dispose of nuclear waste from the plant continues. CAI reporter Jennette Barnes has been investigating the proposed dumping of radioactive water into Cape Cod Bay. She shared what she’s learned with host Patrick Flanary on Morning Edition.

Flanary: Last fall, we learned that the owner of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, Holtec, was considering dumping a million gallons of radioactive water from the closed plant into Cape Cod Bay. After public outcry, the company pledged not to dump water until at least next year. But the plan has raised a lot of questions about how safe — or unsafe — releases from Pilgrim may be. CAI reporter Jennette Barnes has been speaking with scientists to take a deeper look at the potential health and environmental risks. She joins us now on Morning Edition. Jennette, welcome.

Barnes: Thank you. Good morning, Patrick.

Flanary: Start off by telling us who you’ve been talking with.

Barnes: Sure. One is a research scientist who studies radioactivity in the ocean. That’s Ken Buesseler. And he works right here locally, at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. And then the second has intimate knowledge of the Pilgrim nuclear plant. That’s Harold Anagnostopoulos. He is the senior health physicist for the northeast, for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which means he’s also the lead inspector of Pilgrim.

Flanary: And the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allows these discharges of nuclear material; is that right?

Barnes: Right. The plant is actually designed to release both water and gases that contain radioisotopes, as long as they meet federal limits. What’s different here is, the plant is shut down, so there’s a large volume of water waiting to be dealt with. But that wouldn’t all be released at once.

Flanary: So Ken Buesseler is the research scientist. What was Ken’s reaction to the idea of discharging that water into the bay?

Barnes: Well, he says, first of all, it’s not the volume — it’s the contents, right? Because just one gallon of highly contaminated water could be a serious health concern. And he says we live in a radioactive world already, because of everything human beings have done with nuclear technology and some natural radiation as well. Let’s take a listen to some of what he had to say about that.

Buesseler: The question is, how much more does a given event add, and what type of isotopes, before you can really know whether you should head to the hills and panic, or if it's just something that's incrementally an additional risk, but maybe not something you would change your behavior, right? We choose to get a dental X-ray, and that is a very, very small risk, and often get concerned about swimming in the ocean, say, off Japan or even the West Coast of the U.S. after Fukushima Daiichi. But those levels can be a thousand times lower than, say, a single dental X-ray.

Flanary: OK. So the specifics — of what radioactive materials and how much — are important to this. So what are the specifics for Pilgrim? What’s in the water the plant is proposing to release?

Barnes: Well, unfortunately, Anagnostopoulos, the health physicist for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told me he doesn’t have that information for future releases. Here’s part of his response:

Anagnostopoulos: It would depend on the time that they are planning to make the release, so I would have to take a look at the analytical results at the time of the release. I think the question, really, is not what are the levels, but what is the potential dose to a member of the public?... That's what our regulations are based on.

Flanary: The dose — that’s the potential radiation exposure. Did you get those numbers for Pilgrim?

Barnes: Yes. The NRC provided data on doses from Pilgrim’s liquid and gas releases going back to 2005, which was the year with the highest dose on the chart, and they’re well below federal limits. Here, Anagnostopoulos tells me he expects any new doses from Pilgrim will be lower than that.

Anagnostopoulos: So in the worst case, here in 2005, the total dose was less than a flight from New York to L.A. It was three millirem. … I did a quick thumbnail calculation, and if they were to release that 1.1 million gallons of water, based on a very quick calculation, it's likely to be less than this three millirem that they had in 2005.

Barnes: Now, if there were higher levels, they could settle out and build up in the environment, and he says in the 1970s and ’80s, that did happen near nuclear power plants generally, but the technology has improved since then. Levels now are usually undetectable, except for tritium, because water treatment doesn’t remove tritium.

Flanary: Tritium comes up a lot in public meetings when Pilgrim is involved in the conversation, because residents are pretty concerned. How dangerous is it?

Barnes: Well, Ken Buesseler says tritium is not as big a health concern as many of the other radioactive materials that could be found at a plant, such as strontium-90. Also, because tritium is a form of hydrogen, which is the “H” in H2O, it’s part of the water, and it’s going to tend to wash away. So he says tritium won’t be concentrated near a plant, the way some other elements might.

Flanary: Jennette, one local concern you’ve reported on is shellfish. We have oyster growers and other shellfish growers in Cape Cod Bay, and they’re worried about safety but even more concerned about perception, and the idea that people may not want to buy Cape Cod oysters if Pilgrim discharges this water. What does the Woods Hole scientist think about how shellfish could be affected by Pilgrim?

Barnes: Well, he says he eats the shellfish when he goes to Japan for his Fukushima work. Let’s hear some of his response.

Buesseler: I don't really think I'm going out on a limb to say that the health — direct health effects would be quite small. I think what you're hearing from the NRC is the amounts that they regularly release during routine operations. They've always been there, and no one's shown any evidence of health effects, say, from eating oysters. It’s perfectly healthy.

Flanary: So is his message that if Pilgrim meets federal standards, everything about this is safe?

Barnes: Well, he says he tries not to use the word “safe,” because the assumption is there’s no level of radiation so low that it doesn’t affect human health. So it should be as low as possible. And to that point, Buesseler says a few things are needed here: one, more independent monitoring. He has a project through WHOI that tests seawater for signs of radiation. It’s not cheap; he says it’s $500-plus per sample, just to look for one radioactive element, but it can be done. And he says maybe someone should be paying for that as part of the cleanup of Pilgrim.

Flanary: Wow, OK. So that could provide some data about what’s in Cape Cod Bay where those shellfish are growing.

Barnes: Right. Another thing Buesseler says is really needed is more of an awareness campaign, because right now, he says regulators tend to be dismissive of public concerns, and then other groups stoke fear based on limited information. So he says, whatever’s out there, let’s document it. And that will build trust in the oysters, and about ocean safety around Pilgrim in general.

Flanary: CAI’s Jennette Barnes – that’s a lot of information. Thank you for breaking it down to where we can understand it. And thanks for being here.

Barnes: Thanks for having me, Patrick.

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.