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'Great concern': WHOI scientist says radiation levels are high in Pilgrim nuclear plant water

Ken Buesseler of WHOI
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Ken Buesseler of WHOI

Following the release of Department of Public Health water data from the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, CAI reporter Jennette Barnes talked with marine radiochemist Ken Buesseler, of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, to learn more about what the results mean. She presented key points from the interview on Morning Edition with host Patrick Flanary.

Patrick Flanary: A scientist who studies radioactive elements in the ocean says the water inside the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station is highly contaminated and should not be released without an extensive cleanup. Marine radiochemist Ken Buesseler, of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, talked with CAI reporter Jennette Barnes, and she’s joining us now. Good morning, Jennette.

Jennette Barnes: Good morning, Patrick.

Patrick Flanary: Jennette, last week you reported on the results of state testing on the water inside the nuclear plant. We know there’s Cesium-137 and several other radioactive elements in the water. And you interviewed an expert who happens to work here on Cape Cod. First, tell us about his take on the test results.

Jennette Barnes: Sure. So again, this relates to the proposed discharge of about a million gallons of radioactive water into Cape Cod Bay as part of the decommissioning of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station. I interviewed Ken Buesseler of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He studies the fate of radioactive elements in the ocean. And his initial take was that these are high numbers – these are high levels of radioactivity in the Pilgrim water. Let’s take a listen.

Ken Buesseler: In this untreated water, the levels exceed seawater for tritium by a factor of a million. … It's high enough that they are going to have to consider dilution, how much they release every day, how many days or years they do this. … The level, say, of cesium-137 … that's 200 million times higher than what's in the bay. Two hundred million. So let that sink in a second.

Jennette Barnes: So we will let that sink in. Buesseler did say these levels are not unusual among nuclear plants, but they’re nowhere near what they would have to be to match background levels in the bay. And the testing so far has only included elements that are fairly easy to test for. Some things, such as plutonium and strontium-90, won’t be tested for until the water is treated.

Patrick Flanary: Tritium has gotten a lot of attention because water treatment won’t take it out. But Buesseler said people should be looking carefully at the other elements, too, right? Because they’re more dangerous?

Jennette Barnes: Right. Compared to tritium, which is a form of hydrogen and will travel with the water, some of the other radioactive elements like cesium-137 and cobalt-60 are more likely to end up in fish, and they’re more apt to affect human health. Cobalt-60, for example, he said is 300,000 times more likely than tritium to accumulate on the seabed. Of course people are worried about that because of the shellfish in particular. And Buesseler says that means at least some of the cobalt-60 would likely be retained in Cape Cod Bay.

Ken Buesseler: If it's retained, then you don't get this quick dilution off around P-town and into the Atlantic. … So even if you can reduce these levels, their fate is quite different in the ocean than tritium. And they tend to be part of suites of radionuclides that have different biological impacts that are more dangerous if consumed and get into humans and marine life.

Jennette Barnes: And yet the conversation in a lot of public meetings tends to focus on how tritium can’t be removed — and Buesseler says the nuclear energy industry actually likes to see the focus on that, because the other elements are more dangerous.

Patrick Flanary: Now, the water that’s been tested at Pilgrim isn’t treated yet. We do want to be clear about that. But how much radioactive material can the treatment remove?

Jennette Barnes: That is really one of the key questions. Because if 99 percent of a really high amount of radiation gets removed, you could still end up with significantly more radiation in the treated water than the background levels in Cape Cod Bay. So Buesseler says if you remove 99 percent of the cesium from the Pilgrim water, it will still be 2 million times higher than in the bay. He studies the conditions in Fukushima, and he said the plant there has been working on this for 12 years, trying to get the water to meet the Japanese standards. And another point he made is that, in his view, Holtec, the owner of Pilgrim, should not be applying for any permits to discharge water until they’ve done the extraction of radioactive elements, so regulators can see what they’re permitting.

Patrick Flanary: One thing the Department of Public Health said in its report was that, although they didn’t test for strontium-90, other elements that are common indicators of strontium-90 were not present.

Jennette Barnes: That’s right. But Buesseler had a counter to that. He says that with cesium-137 as high as it is here, strontium-90 WILL be present in the water, along with other elements that are part of a group called transuranics. This includes names people know very well, of some dangerous elements like plutonium. Here he is talking about that.

Ken Buesseler: I think that's an important point to bring out: Plutonium is a transuranic — uranium, plutonium, americium. Some of the most dangerous isotopes they didn't look for. Strontium-90 is among that group, and certainly if cesium is this high, there will be strontium-90. There will be transuranics. … They should at least tell us the target levels for cleanup, how high they are above what's in the ocean … because they are of great concern.

Patrick Flanary: So it sounds like he’s saying Holtec should set public goals for how low the radioactivity will be after treatment. Jennette, What did Holtec have to say about the contents of the water, following this testing?

Jennette Barnes: Well, they said there was nothing unexpected in the results — the state actually said the same. The Holtec spokesman, Patrick O’Brien, has said they’re looking forward to moving ahead with the permitting process they need to do to discharge the water. But Holtec hasn’t said much in public about the water results specifically. And Holtec and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have said that when the plant was operating, the discharge of water was well within federal dose limits — that’s the amount of radiation exposure someone could get. The company also says they’re committed to an open and transparent process, and that they’ll follow the law – but then, one big question here will be how exactly do the constellation of state and federal laws apply to this case. And then if policymakers like Governor Healey decide it’s morally unacceptable to release that water, but the law alone doesn’t stop it, what’s their next move?

Patrick Flanary: Did the radiochemist, Ken Buesseler, have anything to say about those radiation dose limits?

Jennette Barnes: Well, his comment was that Holtec will say the dose will be exceedingly low, but that’s the exposure from things like swimming. And he says seafood consumption is very different. Let’s listen to that.

Ken Buesseler: Cesium needs to get down to numbers like one or two becquerel per liter before some of the seafood safety concerns go away, because seafood concentrates cesium. … And since you can never remove 100.0000% of anything, we're going to have some residual that we'd like to be as small as possible or just, you know, not release the water and treat it as waste, and truck it off, or wait for the tritium to decay away.

Jennette Barnes: He’s pointing to some of the other disposal options there – trucking to a separate facility or storing the water long-term, while the radioactivity goes down.

Patrick Flanary: Jennette Barnes, thank you for all your reporting on that.

Jennette Barnes: Thanks, 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.
Patrick Flanary is a dad, journalist, and host of Morning Edition.