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Lack of clarity surrounding Indian Point dumping plans prompts public pushback

Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, New York
Daniel Case
Wikimedia Commons
Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, New York

A lack of clarity regarding Holtec's plans to discharge radioactive wastewater from the spent fuel pools at Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, New York has caused confusion and strong public pushback.

Holtec International’s announcement that the company would move up the discharge of more than a million gallons of treated radioactive water from Indian Point, from August to May was met with swift condemnation and public outcry. Now, the company is backing off those plans.

Patrick O’Brien, Holtec’s Government Outreach Director, said in a letter to the chair of the Decommissioning Oversight Board that “following conversations with key state stakeholders, who wish to allow for additional public education, we have decided not to go forward with the planned discharge in early May.”

The letter noted that the hold was only a pause, and further plans have not been announced.

O’Brien declined comment beyond a letter.

Tom Congdon, Deputy Chair of New York’s Department of Public Services, says that Holtec needs to be better at providing the public information and being a partner in the community.

Congdon also remarked that the responsibility to be transparent falls on Holtec.

“Holtec is undertaking a massive project in this community," Congdon said. "And it's really incumbent on them to be engaged with these local elected officials to understand what matters to them and what's in the community of concern, and they need to do the best they can to address those concerns.”

When asked what the company should do to meet that expectation, Congdon noted that the state was actively monitoring the situation.

“We have someone on site that can then observe that Holtec is complying with those permit conditions and if they're not raise the alarms to all the enforcement entities that can come in and get the matter under control," Congdon remarked.

Congdon added that pausing the release that was moved up, to have totaled some 45,000 gallons, was intended as a way for Holtec and the DPS to confirm the radioactivity of the water.

“One of the fundamental questions that has been raised has been a concern that the public does not know and elected officials do not know and regulatory agencies do not know, what is in the water to be discharged," Congdon noted. "We know what the historical discharges have been. And there's a multi decade trove of data for us to look at to understand what has happened in the past. But there has been no discussion of any independent verification of what's in the water going forward."

One pointed concern, besides the release of water, was the potential for contaminated dust to spread as the plant is demolished. Congdon says that those concerns aren’t warranted.

“The state partnered with the locals, and used all the tools at our disposal and coordinated them to ensure that we had the best, most enforceable permit conditions to control dust," Congdon said.

Congdon added that the demolition was already underway and being done in stages so as to not pose any risk to the public.

In a previous interview with WAMC, O’Brien said that the plan, which at that time was slated for August, would not bow to public pressure.

“It’s not something that we’ve seen changed. We, like any other company, follow what’s allowable by permit, you know, we don’t do anything that is obviously illegal," O'Brien remarked.

The compound of concern in this case is tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen.

Manna Jo Greene, Environmental Action Director for the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater and a Democratic Ulster County legislator, said her organization’s concern is largely over the amount of discharge and the likelihood that it would leach into riverbeds and contaminate the soil.

“That radioactivity gets into the food chain. Some of it settles in the sediment, some of it remains floating in the water," Greene said.

Greene added that the resounding pushback that Holtec faced as a result of the changes to its plan will also likely recur the next time the dump deadline comes due.

A fact sheet from the Health Physics Society says that it is common for tritium to exist within the human body, yet added that ingesting it poses a health concern.

Despite their concerns, David McIntyre of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said that tritium poses no risk when handled in the manner that Holtec is.

“The water from Indian Point will not simply be dumped from the spent fuel pools into the Hudson River it will be filtered and treated prior to releasing to reduce the tritium content during release, the water must be monitored to ensure any remaining tritium is below strict regulatory limits established by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency to protect public health and safety," McIntyre said. "When the water is discharged in batches not all at once it is further diluted in the river therefore, the tritium does not pose a health or safety risk to the public or the environment.”

In addition to opposition from environmental organizations like Clearwater, the plans have faced strong pushback from local governments along the Hudson.

Putnam County Executive Kevin Byrne, a Republican, called Holtec irresponsible during an April 17th press conference alongside his counterparts from Rockland, Westchester, Orange and Ulster counties.

“As soon as they're done with their job, they're going to leave New York to dump hazardous water, wastewater into our Hudson River," Byrne remarked. "There are absolutely other alternative solutions. And we need to be very clear in our resolve and say under no circumstances, will any of our local officials support any effort to dump this wastewater into our beautiful Hudson River.”

Democrat Jen Metzger, the Ulster County Executive, says Holtec’s plan is outmoded and dangerous.

“This plan must be in keeping with our knowledge and values in 2023. Not with the 1960s standards of the nuclear power industry, which viewed local waterways as a garbage bin that would absorb the cost of doing business and help their bottom line. We must look forward to the future, and a healthy future dictates that we can and must do better," Metzger said.

Metzger said Hudson Valley residents have been down this road before.

“We have been fighting corporate polluters for too many decades. Some 60 years later, we are still fighting to hold GE accountable for repairing the harm from PCB contamination," Metzger noted.

“We’re deeply concerned about the discharging of wastewater into the Hudson River. In the next couple of weeks, you're gonna see hundreds of people fishing here, striped bass are starting to run up there, just south of the Verrazano Bridge," Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus said. "People are catching them, people are eating them, I wouldn't want to eat anything that was exposed to water that was from Indian Point, there are other options, and at the bottom line we want them to explore those other options.”

The Republican added that the unified front alone should give Holtec pause.

“And when you see us all united like this, you know, it's important to us,” Neuhaus warned.

George Latimer, a Democrat and Westchester County Executive, said there was particular frustration with the corporation excluding them from the process.

“We want more than a pause, we want a full stop," Latimer said. "And we want to be a part of the decision-making process to understand what the options are. And since this is the government of the people, by the people, and for the people, we are the people as well. And it's not just a corporate decision. It's a decision that have to be made by all of us as people.”

While Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s office said the discharge has been canceled, the letter from O’Brien specifically says that the plan has just been paused while Holtec awaits further public comments. Congdon confirmed that in an interview with WAMC.

“Holtec says said that its plans would be to start in August or September," Congdon said.

A bill sponsored by State Senator Pete Harckham of the 40th District and Assemblywoman Dana Levenberg of the 95th District to prevent the discharges remains in the Environmental Conservation Committee.

The Decommissioning Board’s next virtual gathering is scheduled for Tuesday from 6 to 9 p.m., and the next in-person meeting is set for 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday at Cortlandt Town Hall.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that the discharge was what Holtec would use to confirm the radioactivity of the water. It is the pause of the discharge that will enable this testing.

ADDITION: additional information was received from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission after airtime. That information is below.

All nuclear power plant liquid and gaseous releases to the environment, including those involving tritium, must be planned, monitored and documented. NRC regulations (10 CFR Part 20 and 10 CFR Part 50) place limits on these releases to ensure safety standards are being met, such as NRC ALARA (As Low As Reasonably Achievable) limits and EPA drinking-water standards. On an annual basis, NRC guidelines require that the release of radioactive liquids from a nuclear power plant not result in a radiation dose of greater than 3 millirems to any individual in an unrestricted area.

● Tritium is a naturally occurring radioactive form of hydrogen; it is produced in the atmosphere when cosmic rays collide with air molecules.

● It is also a byproduct of the fission process in nuclear power plants.

● Tritium can bond with oxygen to form water, resulting in ‘tritiated water’; such water is chemically identical to normal water and the tritium cannot be filtered out of the water.

●Tritium is almost always in liquid form.

● It primarily enters the body when people eat or drink food or water containing tritium or absorb it through the skin.

● Once tritium enters the body, it disperses quickly and is uniformly distributed throughout the soft tissues.

● Half of the tritium is excreted within approximately 10 days after exposure.

A 2022 Siena College graduate, Alexander began his journalism career as a sports writer for Siena College's student paper The Promethean, and as a host for Siena's school radio station, WVCR-FM "The Saint." A Cubs fan, Alexander hosts the morning Sports Report in addition to producing Morning Edition. You can hear the sports reports over-the-air at 6:19 and 7:19 AM, and online on WAMC.org. He also speaks Spanish as a second language. To reach him, email ababbie@wamc.org, or call (518)-465-5233 x 190. You can also find him on Twitter/X: @ABabbieWAMC.
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