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Why the state may not be able to stop Holtec from discharging radioactive water

Pilgrim nuclear power station in Plymouth, MA.
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Plymouth Nuclear Power Station

The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station’s environmental permit does nothing to block the plant from releasing radioactive water into Cape Cod Bay unless the water contains non-nuclear pollutants, Attorney General Maura Healey’s office tells CAI, clarifying a comment that implied otherwise in the Provincetown Independent on Wednesday.

What’s in the water has become a hot issue in the debate over whether Pilgrim, owned by Holtec International, can dump wastewater into the bay. That’s because environmental authorities generally don’t control nuclear material; that jurisdiction belongs to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The Independent reported that Healey spokeswoman Chloe Gotsis said, “The facility’s permits prohibit the discharge of spent fuel pool water and wastewater generated by the decommissioning process into Cape Cod Bay and we expect Holtec to abide by those rules.”

In response to follow-up questions from CAI seeking to clarify the state’s authority, Healey’s office sent a link to Pilgrim’s permit under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System. (Its acronym, NPDES, is pronounced “NIP-deez.”)

Co-signed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, the permit prohibits discharge of water from the spent-fuel pool only if the water contains pollutants as defined in the Clean Water Act. Radioactive materials are not regulated by the EPA and are not included.

Thus, any statement that the NPDES permit prohibits discharge from Pilgrim assumes that the water contains non-nuclear pollutants.

What pollutants the water may contain isn’t clear. No recent testing has been done, because Holtec hasn’t finished using the water, according to Pine duBois, vice chair of the state-appointed Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel. Water protects workers from radiation from submerged equipment.

In an effort to boost state authority over Pilgrim and prevent the dumping, state legislators from Cape Cod and the South Shore have filed bills that would ban the discharge of radioactive materials into coastal or inland waters in Massachusetts.

Both the House and Senate versions of the bill would place liability for any damages from the proposed dumping on Holtec and impose fines. But the question of whether the state has the authority to do so remains uncertain.

State Sen. Susan Moran, who filed the Senate bill, said the “common understanding” that the state is limited in its ability to intervene because of federal jurisdiction “has concerned people, because there's a feeling that we have to sort of stand by and watch the train wreck.”

She hopes state and federal regulators can work together to stop the dumping, she said.

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Neil Sheehan declined to comment on state legislation, but he told CAI that Holtec can resume controlled releases of radioactive water without additional approval from the NRC.

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.