State Sen. Suisan Moran, D-Falmouth, furthered legislative efforts to delay, if not outright prevent, a million gallons of wastewater from being discharged into Cape Cod Bay by Holtec, the company decommissioning the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, through a proposal included as part of the Senate's recently passed economic development package.
If successful, the measure would lead to the creation of a special commission to study the economic and environmental impacts of the discharge of spent fuel pool water and other materials created as a waste product of nuclear energy into the state's waterways.
Holtec has faced mounting pressure to find an alternative to discharging the water from the spent fuel pool and other areas after first announcing its plans to release it this past November.
In response, the company said it would not discharge any water through the rest of the year, although it expects to announce its chosen course of action in the coming months.
"Holtec's announcement that the company would dump one million gallons of radioactive waste into Cape Cod Bay is already negatively impacting our communities," Moran said in a recent statement. "Even the perception of harm puts local industries at risk, and that is before we examine the real risk to our environment and health."
To address the concerns over even the perception of contamination raised by the tourism, real estate and fishing industries, the commission would be co-chaired by the attorney general and secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs and would include designees from state agencies including the Dept. of Public Health (DPH), Office of Travel and Tourism and Division of Marine Fisheries.
Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not have oversight of radioactive materials – that duty falls to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission – it has refuted Holtec's claims that it was authorized to release any water under both its current NDPES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permit and the settlement agreement it reached with the state prior to beginning the decommissioning of the plant.
While the water would be treated and released in batches over time, critics contend that nuclear elements, particularly tritium, which cannot be filtered out, would bioaccumulate in the water to potentially unhealthy levels.
The commission would be required to complete a report of their findings and recommendations by Nov. 1, 2024, and hold at least four public hearings in Dukes, Plymouth, Bristol, and Barnstable counties.
Discharge of the water, if allowed, would be prohibited until 90 days after the report's release.
A version of the legislation already passed in the House. A conference committee will be appointed to address differences between the two bills.
Promising results, other options
During a field hearing held in Plymouth this past May of the Congressional Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate, and Nuclear Safety, Holtec agreed to submit the water for third-party testing.
A representative for U.S. Sen Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, who chaired the hearing, said more information about who would perform the testing should be available by the next meeting of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel (NDCAP), which takes place the end of next month.
Holtec said it would have sample results of both radiological and non-radiological elements in the untreated water in time for that meeting, which, a representative of the company noted, would not be reflective of water treated in preparation for discharge.
Moran attended the July 25 NDCAP meeting (the meetings are held every other month) to both discuss the measure and reaffirm her opposition to Holtec's plans.
"I offer my strongest condemnation of Holtec's flagrant disregard for the concerns of the people of Plymouth and the surrounding community," she said."Barring significant reforms to decommissioning oversight will likely result in insufficient regulatory authority to prevent them from steamrolling over the will of the public."
Other options exist for the company, although Holtec said those other alternatives, such as evaporation or trucking the water to an out-of-state facility, would be both costly and require large amounts of fossil fuels to be used, which Holtec said runs counter to its tenets of environmental justice.
A fourth option, storing the water indefinitely at the site, would delay the decommissioning process, according to the company.
Shifting the cost of oversight
While the study committee proposal must make it through the review, hearing and approval process, an amendment to the state's $52.7 billion fiscal 2023 budget submitted by Moran related to who foots the bill for nuclear plant oversight and monitoring costs is a done deal following Gov. Charlie Baker's signing of the budget July 28.
That responsibility had fallen to the state's Department of Public Health (DPH), which is already facing a shortfall between $160,000 and $450,000 annually through at least 2027, according to Moran.
"Insufficient funding could potentially interfere with DPH's ability to provide much needed oversight. Lack of adequate oversight would have a profound effect on the commonwealth's environmental and public health and the economy," she said.
On top of ensuring continued oversight, Moran said the measure would benefit residents financially.
"This language would allow assessments against nuclear facility owners and operators for costs associated with accidental releases of radiation and disturbances related to the decommissioning process," she said. "In other words, this amendment would rightly shift some of the burden away from the taxpayer."
This is not the first legislation introduced over the last year relating to concerns over releasing the water into the bay.
Moran had previously introduced a bill that would prevent any discharge of nuclear contaminants into the state's waterways. Like the study committee, local representatives in the House have submitted a nearly identical bill for consideration (the two only differ in the amount of fines levied against violators),
Both bills have yet to come up for a full vote, and both chambers have ended their current legislatives sessions.
All the measures, Moran said at the NDCAP meeting, are aimed at helping residents who have taken on the role of activists and monitors.
"It's my position that the commonwealth should step in to alleviate pressure on constituents to act as watchdogs for their own public health and safety," she said.