Holtec dumping of radioactive water at NJ plant spurs questions about Pilgrim's future

PLYMOUTH — As the next public meeting with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission draws closer, recent water discharges from a now-closed New Jersey nuclear power plant have some Cape organizers wondering if the future of Plymouth's shuttered power station is happening in real-time just three states away.

The Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station, located in Forked River, New Jersey, shut down in 2018 and is undergoing decommissioning by Holtec Decommissioning International, the same company in charge of decommissioning the now-closed Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth.

Neil Sheehan, a public affairs officer with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, confirmed the Oyster Creek station released 24,000 gallons of low-level radioactive water from the plant into the surrounding water on Sept. 7, which feeds into Barnegat Bay.

More: Holtec temporarily pausing plans to dump radioactive water in Cape Cod Bay. Here's why

The discharge was performed over the course of two days, Sheehan said in an email, and is typical protocol of both online and offline plants.

"'Batch' releases of such water — following the filtering, treatment and testing of the water for radioactive constituents — are typically in the range of about 30,000 gallons," he said in the email. "Such releases are conducted slowly and gradually and must be within NRC and EPA safety limits that are protective of the public."

Holtec spokesperson Patrick O'Brien confirmed the Oyster Creek discharge as well.

"They have, like pretty much every other plant, discharged (low-level radioactive water) over the course of operation, and continued to discharge during decommissioning," he said.

The water is chemically and mechanically treated before release, O'Brien said, with strategies like charcoal filters and resin beds.

The discharge is also diluted with sea water, he added, and meets environmental guidelines from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Nuclear activists raise concerns after New Jersey discharge

The type of batch release of water with low-level radioactive contamination is just the kind of process organizers from towns across the Cape and Islands and the South Shore have been protesting against.

"We are in the shadow of Oyster Creek and Holtec is just running roughshod over the community there," said Diane Turco, director of nuclear activist organization Cape Downwinders.

Turco and many other community leaders and activists have been raising awareness of Holtec's plans for decommissioning the Pilgrim power plant, which included discharging into Cape Cod Bay nearly one million gallons of water used to cool reactors and spent fuel cells when the plant was in operation.

Diane Turco of Harwich and Cape Downwinders address the Nuclear Regulatory Commission representatives at a hearing in May in Plymouth.
Diane Turco of Harwich and Cape Downwinders address the Nuclear Regulatory Commission representatives at a hearing in May in Plymouth.

Holtec pledged in December 2021 to withhold discharging any treated water from the plant into the bay for the remainder of 2022.

In May 2022, U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts, held an unprecedented field hearing at Plymouth Town Hall, where the senator, alongside other elected officials like Rep. Bill Keating, D-Bourne, questioned Holtec president Kris Singh about the plant's decommissioning.

At that meeting, Holtec and the state agreed the company wouldn't discharge any treated water from Pilgrim until a third-party expert approved by both parties weighed in, a still-ongoing process.

Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station sits on the coast of Plymouth.
Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station sits on the coast of Plymouth.

For Turco and many other activists in the region, their message is clear: no water — treated or otherwise — should be discharged into Cape Cod Bay.

"We have trust in our attorney general in her word that Holtec will be held accountable, but we want people to understand that Holtec is planning an illegal activity with impunity," Turco said of water discharge plans. "Dumping into Cape Cod Bay is illegal. Dumping any radionuclides into a protected ocean sanctuary is illegal."

On Sep. 26, the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel will meet in Plymouth Town Hall to hear from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and see results from testing done to the nearly one million gallons of radioactively contaminated water held in limbo at the plant.

O'Brien said there is no timeline on when Holtec will announce its plans for disposing of the water.

"The reality of it is all four options remain on the table: discharge, evaporation, some sort of trucking or just holding the water," he said.

Sarah Carlon can be reached at: scarlon@capecodonline.com or on Twitter: @sarcarlon

This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Holtech dumps radioactive water at NJ plant, is that Pilgrim's future?