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Pilgrim’s 1M gallons of radioactive water could evaporate in seven years

Members of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel discuss the future of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station at a meeting in Plymouth, Nov. 27, 2023. From left: Jack Priest of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Seth Pickering of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, Mary Lampert of Pilgrim Watch, Andrew Gottlieb of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, and Plymouth resident and activist Henrietta Cosentino.
Jennette Barnes
/
CAI
Members of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel discuss the future of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station at a meeting in Plymouth, Nov. 27, 2023. From left: Jack Priest of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Seth Pickering of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, Mary Lampert of Pilgrim Watch, Andrew Gottlieb of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, and Plymouth resident and activist Henrietta Cosentino.

Decommissioning of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station could take eight years longer than expected six months ago. Owner Holtec International has announced its second four-year delay since May, and the delay could have big implications for the disposal of radioactive water that remains in the plant.

The decommissioning timeline now stretches out to 2035. At the present rate of evaporation of radioactive water from Pilgrim, the water and its contaminants could be dispersed into the air before that date ever comes.

That would pull the teeth out of the state’s expected permit denial for Pilgrim owner Holtec to discharge the water into Cape Cod Bay.

Andrew Gottlieb, executive director of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, says the company is playing out the clock.

“You're going to drag this out for a variety of reasons, such that, at the end of the day, you either prevail in court … and you discharge it in the ocean, or it evaporates out,” he said, addressing Holtec representatives at Monday’s meeting of the state’s Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel.

People on both sides, Holtec included, have said that human exposure to radioactive tritium would be higher from evaporation than from discharging the water into the bay.

The predicted delay moves the date when part of the Pilgrim property in Plymouth could be reused for something else from 2031 to 2035.

If 150,000 gallons were to evaporate each year, the water would be gone in 2030. That’s five years before Holtec now expects to be finished with the site.

Spent nuclear fuel would remain in long-term storage on the site.

David Noyes, who represents Holtec on the advisory panel, said the latest extension of the timeline stems from uncertainty over the proposed release of radioactive water.

“Demolition of the reactor building cannot be assured until the point at which we have a clear path to be able to disposition the water,” he said.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection issued a draft denial in July of a permit modification for Holtec to release the water.

In May, Noyes blamed the previous four-year delay on three things: a need to allow the decommissioning trust fund to grow to make up for cost increases, the emerging availability of new equipment to dismantle the reactor, and uncertainty over the water discharge permit.

Under questioning Monday by panel member Henrietta Cosentino, Noyes said about 950,000 gallons of water remain inside Pilgrim. That represents a drop of 150,000 gallons from the 1.1 million held at the plant nine months ago.

If 150,000 gallons were to evaporate each year, the water would be gone in 2030. That’s five years before Holtec now expects to be finished with the site.

Gottlieb said the delay could be a tactic to give the company time to appeal if the state denies the permit.

“You're imposing a penalty on … Plymouth directly, by delaying the release of the property because you don't like the permit decision,” he said. “You have, within your discretion, the ability to accept the answer you're given by the state regulatory authority.”

Noyes rejected the idea that the delay is a tactic.

“It’s not a tactic,” he said. “It’s a recognition of reality.”

Noyes said if the state denies Holtec a permit to release the water, he expects the company will appeal.

The newly elected leaders of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel are the chair, Jim Lampert, at left, and the vice chair, Mary Gatslick, at right.
Jennette Barnes
/
CAI
The newly elected leaders of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel are the chair, Jim Lampert, at left, and the vice chair, Mary Gatslick, at right.

Heaters at Pilgrim that warm the water to allow work to continue in cool weather were activated Nov. 22 after being shut off for the summer. A federal inspection previously determined that the heaters were likely to increase evaporation and cause a small increase in the release of radioactive tritium.

Jack Priest, who represents the Massachusetts Department of Public Health on the panel, said the new delay is worrisome, for financial reasons.

“I think this is a big, red — I think this is a big flag for us to pay attention to,” he said. “Is there going to be enough money in the fund to complete the project?”

Priest said the panel spends a lot of time talking about radiation doses from tritium, even though the amount of tritium released could be well within the law.

“I'm not saying it's not a concern, but in the big picture, if it's a small number well below our regulatory limit, I'm not as concerned,” he said. “I'm more concerned with another four-year extension on top of a previous four-year extension.”

The panel, known by the acronym NDCAP, elected a new chair and vice chair Monday.

Jim Lampert, a retired lawyer and a member of Pilgrim Watch who lives in Duxbury, was elected chair.

Mary Gatslick, who retired last March after 31 years as a Pilgrim employee in licensing, emergency planning, and security, was elected vice chair.

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.