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Massachusetts senator takes victory lap as state blocks radioactive water release from nuclear plant

In a win for local politicians and environmental activists, the Bay State’s environmental authority deep-sixed a request to discharge wastewater from the moribund Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey on Monday applauded his home state for icing a private company’s plan to release roughly one million gallons of radioactive water into the Cape Cod Bay from a shuttered nuclear power plant.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection announced Monday that it had rejected a request for a permit modification from nuclear services company Holtec International that would have allowed it to release wastewater from Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, which the firm is in the process of dismantling.

Cape Cod Bay — along which the Plymouth, Mass. nuclear plant is built — is protected under a state conservation law which shields certain ocean sanctuary regions from pollution, the environmental authority concluded in a draft determination.

Markey, long a critic of nuclear power, hailed the decision.

“This is a good day for environmental justice,” the Democrat wrote in a statement calling the environmental protection department’s decision a “win for the environment and for all of the people, businesses, and organizations that rely on Cape Cod Bay’s reputation for clean and safe water.”

The lawmaker also dinged Holtec, which in 2019 took over at the Pilgrim plant from electric utility Entergy, for what he called a failure to follow through on commitments to keep the decommissioning process open for public participation.

“Holtec has fallen woefully short on this commitment,” Markey said, “particularly with regard to its plans to discharge one million gallons of radioactive water into the Cape Cod Bay, despite vehement opposition from local stakeholders.”

During a hearing in April 2022 with Holtec CEO Kris Singh, the executive suggested to the lawmaker that he would not allow any wastewater discharge without support from the local community.

Markey’s fellow Massachusetts Democrat Senator Elizabeth Warren credited state Governor Maura Healey for scrapping the proposed discharge, calling the move “a triumph for environmental justice” in a tweet and noting that the environment department’s decision “follows science & reflects the community’s concerns.”

Opposition has ballooned in recent months to the planned release, which Holtec has defended as normal practice for decommissioning nuclear power plants.

Leading the charge stateside against the proposed wastewater discharge has been State Senator Susan Moran, a Democrat who represents Plymouth and the nearby community of Barnstable, Mass.

“This is a significant victory for our coastal communities and a triumph for environmental advocates who have tirelessly fought against this dangerous plan,” Moran said in a statement Monday. “Our precious coastal waters and marine life are too valuable to be compromised by such actions.”

Moran has on more than one occasion introduced legislation aimed at delaying Holtec’s proposed discharge until 2025. The state senator got similar language included on Boston’s budget bill late last year, but the provision was vetoed in November by then-Governor Charlie Baker.

The rejection from the Massachusetts environment department comes months after Holtec drew the ire of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its plan to discharge Pilgrim’s wastewater, which would largely come from the plant’s 40-foot-deep pool used to cool off spent fuel rods. The EPA in December told the company that any discharge would violate the terms of its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, which as written bars any releases from the plant’s spent fuel pool.

A permit modification is the only way Holtec can legally move forward with such a discharge, the agency said. Refusal to comply, meanwhile, could result in “the full array of enforcement authority that Congress has granted to EPA,” the letter warned.

Holtec spokesperson Patrick O’Brien said the company was disappointed with the Bay State’s decision. In a statement on Monday he contended that Pilgrim’s wastewater had been treated for radioactivity and is “well within safe limits.”

Opposition to the proposed discharges has pushed back decommissioning efforts at the nuclear plant by four years, O’Brien estimated.

“We will continue with the EPA modification process,” the spokesperson continued, “and will look to evaluate all options related to the ultimate disposition of the water used in plant operations for the last 50 years.”

Opponents of Holtec’s discharge plan have over the last year or so urged the company to explore other options for taking the Pilgrim plant’s wastewater offsite, such as evaporating it or shipping it to a storage facility. The company has said that alternative disposal methods are too costly or complicated, and that a release would likely be part of any final decommissioning plan for Pilgrim.

Meanwhile, State Senator Moran said she hoped that Massachusetts could be a blueprint for other states grappling with nuclear decommissioning projects.

“Massachusetts will lead the way in setting a standard for safer decommissioning practices, and I hope other states will follow suit,” Moran said. “We must continue to support responsible decommissioning efforts.”

There are 21 former nuclear power reactors under decommissioning in the U.S., according to federal nuclear safety regulator the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In addition to Pilgrim the Camden, New Jersey-based Holtec owns four of those sites, including New York’s Indian Point Energy Center and Michigan’s Palisades Nuclear Generating Station.

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Categories / Energy, Law, Regional

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