Strange turns of phrase begin to crop up when the operator of a decommissioned nuclear power plant looks to dump hundreds of thousands of gallons of radioactive wastewater into a river that changes directions four times a day and provides drinking water to numerous communities up and down the river.
The word “dewatering” describes a necessary step to get at cleaning boron deposits off the upper perimeter of a spent uranium fuel rod pool.
Since you can’t just flush out 265,000 gallons of radioactive stuff willy-nilly into the river, you’ve got to release it in smaller batches. And you call that “an exercise” if you’re Richard Burroni, vice-president of Holtec International, the company handling the decommissioning of the power plant at Indian Point in Buchanan.
While the company advertises solutions — from wet and dry fuel-storage systems to shielded transfer casks to provide confinement and removal for used nuclear fuel on its website — releasing it into rivers is not one of them.
Not that it’s illegal. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), New York State nuclear power plants are allowed to discharge contaminated cooling water into rivers. It’s just not emphasized.
State senators protest
At issue in the contaminated water is the byproduct tritium, a radioactive hydrogen isotope created when spent uranium rods are stored in the cooling pools. In much the same way as plain hydrogen reacts with oxygen to form water, tritium in radioactive rivers falls as radioactive snow and rises again in a radioactive mist.
With a half-life of 12.6 years, tritium degrades relatively quickly, with the measurable majority of the substance turned to helium in 40 years. In highly concentrated amounts, however, ingestion or inhalation of tritium is linked to cancer. Children and pregnant women are most vulnerable.
The idea is that the concentrated tritium flushed into the Hudson River will be so diluted by the river that any harm caused by the discharge would be negligible.
“Holtec wishes to provide notice to the Decommissioning Oversight Board of our intent to conduct a partial dewatering of the Unit 2 Spent Fuel Pool no earlier than May 4, 2023, with the discharges to occur in the subsequent weeks in May,” wrote Holtec’s Burroni. “Three batches of 18,000 gallons each which would be limited to 45,000 gallons in total for this exercise.”
While Holtec advertises itself on its website as “a socially responsible corporate citizen,” New York state senator Pete Harckham of Westchester County takes umbrage at that characterization. “After decades of tremendous efforts to clean up the Hudson River, the idea of anyone dumping radioactive water into this estuary, the economic lifeblood of our region, is simply outrageous,” said Harckham. “No person, corporation or government has the right to recklessly pollute New York State’s waters, and the mere idea that this is being contemplated is troubling. While the decommissioning of a nuclear power plant is a complex issue, there can be no rationale for releasing radioactive waste into the Hudson.”
Among the co-sponsors of Harckham’s bill to prohibit any discharge whatsoever of any radiological agent into the waters of the state is Ulster County state senator Michelle Hinchey.
“It’s disgraceful that Holtec is more focused on putting corporate profit over the health and safety of our Hudson River,” said Hinchey, “not to mention a complete affront to the local communities and coalition of advocates that have been working, in good faith, to move forward feasible alternatives to immediately discharging millions of gallons of radioactive wastewater into our water supply.”
Burroni could not be reached for comment.
State to monitor discharges
The Hudson River sees saltwater from the Atlantic Ocean pushing as far north as Poughkeepsie, and the river itself has tides all the way up to the falls at Cohoes. Like the ocean, the river has four tides a day, and anything from pillow feathers to radioactive isotopes dumped in at Indian Point in Westchester can be carried on the tides northward past every riverside municipality on the way.
Forty miles to the north of the Indian point power plant, the Town of Lloyd uses a pump system to deliver water directly from the Hudson River to a reservoir, the source of drinking water for its residents. Poughkeepsie too pulls drinking water from the Hudson. So do the towns of Hyde Park, Esopus and Rhinebeck. All are members of the Hudson River Drinking Water Intermunicipal Council (the Hudson 7).
The website for the Environmental Protection Agency provides a fun radiation dose calculator, which can account for miles traveled by jet plane, X-rays at the dentist, and TSA full-body scans. Location too plays a part in the accounting for the type of radiation received.
Millirems are the U.S. unit for measuring effective dose. When adjusting for terrestrial radiation, that is radiation generated from metals and minerals found in the earth, New York residents can expect a baseline exposure to 90 millirems of radiation yearly compared to Colorado’s 157 millirems.
The primary sources of terrestrial radiation, says the EPA, are uranium and thorium, primordial radionuclides naturally found in the earth, though there are others. Radon, for instance, a naturally occurring radioactive gas formed as radium decays, is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States.
The problem with radioactivity is that it can’t be seen directly. Other than handheld monitoring devices like a Geiger counter, it can only be measured inferentially by its symptoms.
In low concentrations, tritium is hardly anything to worry about. The beta particle emitted by tritium, also known as the ionizing radiation, can’t even penetrate the dead top layer of skin on the human body. If it’s not concentrated and gulped down in tritiated water or inhaled in a hot fuel rod steaming mist, say the scientists, there is little to be concerned about.
But released into the Hudson River in the hundreds of thousands of gallons strikes many as a bit rich. Those sober-minded sentinels over at Riverkeeper are predictably humorless when it comes to known contaminants being disposed of in their tidal estuary, noting with concern that Holtec International has so far filed for a number of exemptions with the NRC that would loosen existing oversight requirements. Riverkeeper pointed to the company’s 2019 disbarment and subsequent bribes paid in connection with a contract it had been awarded to build a storage facility for spent nuclear fuel at TVA’s Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama.
“We are calling for a halt to the discharges,” says Riverkeeper, “and a means of storing the contaminated water safely in tanks on the site while safer disposal methods are evaluated.”
So far, these calls have fallen on deaf ears. Plans for decommissioning the power plant have been fast-tracked at the federal level.
Accepting Holtec’s plan, the Decommissioning Oversight Board commented upon its intention to exercise its own rigorous oversight. “While this planned discharge of approximately 45,000 gallons of treated water is allowed under existing permits and such discharges are conducted under the auspices of the federal government,” it said, “the state plans to independently verify the contents of the water to be discharged by obtaining water samples and analyzing them in a state lab.”
Following Holtec’s “partial dewatering” releases of the initial 45,000 gallons of discharges planned for next month, approximately 265,000 gallons will remain in the undewatered pool, said Burroni. “Currently, we plan to begin the total dewatering process of the Unit 2 Spent Fuel Pool in the August-September time frame.”
Holtec advises that the discharge will be similar to discharges from the plant that have occurred every year since the reactor operations started in 1962. Tritium in discharges from Indian Point, which is the subject of recent inquiries, has consistently measured less than 0.01 percent of the federal annual limits for doses to the general public and have met drinking water standards at the discharge point.
This is Holtech’s modus operandi. The company is currently decommissioning the Pilgrim nuclear power station in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Operations there came to a halt early last month when locals offered stiff resistance to the firm’s plans to discharge 1.1 million gallons of radioactive wastewater into Cape Cod Bay. For now, Holtec’s plans there have been halted pending an independent environmental study.