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Radioactive water evaporating from Pilgrim: Congressional delegation demands answers

The Rev. Kate Wilkinson, of the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House of Provincetown, at right, and her mother Lynne Wilkinson holds a banner that reads, "Water is Life" at a rally Sept. 26, 2022, against discharge of radioactive water from the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station.
Jennette Barnes
/
CAI
The Rev. Kate Wilkinson, of the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House of Provincetown, at right, and her mother Lynne Wilkinson hold a banner that reads, "Water is Life" at a rally Sept. 26, 2022, against discharge of radioactive water from the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station.

Three members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation are pressing the owner of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station to answer questions about the evaporation of radioactive water from the plant.

In a letter to Holtec Tuesday, Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Bill Keating asked the company to respond in writing, by May 31, to a list of 13 detailed questions.

They want to know what kind of contamination remains in the water after it’s filtered, how fast the water is evaporating, and how pre-evaporation filtering compares to the filtering of water for discharge into Cape Cod Bay.

They asked if Holtec would forgo any present plans to discharge the water into Cape Cod Bay, to intentionally evaporate it, or to take any other action to dispose of the water until after “engaging with community stakeholders.”

Local residents are fighting Holtec’s plan to release water from the reactor cavity, spent-fuel pool, and other areas of the plant into Cape Cod Bay as part of the decommissioning of the plant. The water is also evaporating into the outdoor air.

Before filtering, the water contains radioactive elements and non-radiological contamination. Not all of it can be removed.

In an interview, Keating said it’s too soon to know what the next steps will be if Holtec declines the request to forgo discharge or does not answer the questions.

“Let's get the answers to the questions,” he said. “Let's see what the facts are first. If they're not forthright, then we're going to have to intervene — maybe at the state level, maybe at the federal level, or maybe, you know, there'll be an opportunity to go through the courts. We'll see.”

He said it’s clear that Holtec lacks authorization to discharge the water.

The company is looking for ways to dispose of what was once more than 1 million gallons of water and is now less than 900,000, due to evaporation.

Holtec installed submerged heaters that accelerated evaporation over the winter, but the company said the heaters were designed to raise the temperature of the water for underwater work and to warm the space for workers, rather than to speed evaporation.

Holtec spokesman Patrick O’Brien said the company has no plans to hold off on evaporation or discharge of the water as the delegation requested.

“The reality is, regardless of what you do, water will evaporate,” he said. “So whether we have heaters in there or not, I can't stop evaporation. So the general answer to that will always be no.”

The heaters have been shut off since around March, he said. He said the evaporation happening now is the same as evaporation that happened when the water was used to store spent nuclear fuel, only perhaps with less radioactivity, because of radioactive decay.

“We have reported, back in January of 2022 at a public meeting, that 660,000 gallons had evaporated,” he said. “And no one questioned it back then. Only since the water discharge became an issue and was ultimately delayed — now suddenly, air has been an issue.”

Diane Turco, director of the local activist group Cape Downwinders, called the heat-induced increase in evaporation immoral.

“Holtec's radioactive and chemical wastewater discharge via forced evaporation under the [guise] of worker comfort and drying equipment is an immoral ruse,” she said in an email.

“We do not consent to this contamination of our communities and environment,” she said.

O’Brien said Holtec is reviewing the congressional letter and deciding whether to respond.

Read the full text of the letter here.

Find more reporting on the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station here.

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.
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