By Brian PJ Cronin, Reporter | August 5, 2022
Holtec would like to discharge water from the former Indian Point nuclear plant into the Hudson River. (File photo by B. Cronin)
Says radioactive water would be far below limits
The company hired to decommission the Indian Point nuclear plant on the Hudson River south of the Highlands continues to press the federal government to allow exemptions to its regulations.
Rich Burroni, a Holtec executive, said at the most recent meeting of the Indian Point Decommissioning Task Force on July 27 at Cortlandt Town Hall that exemptions were necessary because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has not updated its rules governing reactors that are no longer operational.
“Maybe exemptions is the wrong word,” he told the 26-member panel, which includes Sandy Galef, a Democrat in the state Assembly whose district includes Philipstown. “Maybe that’s the negative connotation. But what we’re trying to do is just have rules in place that are commensurate with defueled reactors” and “consistent with what every other plant in this country has done with regards to decommissioning.”
In 1999, the NRC identified dozens of its regulations that should not apply to permanently closed reactors but is only now, more than 20 years later, in the final stages of changing the regulations. The public comment period ends Aug. 30 (see bit.ly/NRC-229), and the agency is not expected to make changes until January.
Burroni said that, had the rules already been updated, “you wouldn’t even know about half of this stuff we’re trying to get rectified.”
David Lochbaum, a retired nuclear engineer and task force member who once worked for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that while he does not agree with all of Holtec’s exemption requests, the NRC’s slow pace is not in the public’s best interest. As an example, he pointed to the NRC’s cybersecurity requirements, which Holtec has to follow even though the plant is offline with the exception of human resources files.
“If you’re Holtec, or anybody following cybersecurity requirements that aren’t applicable to a decommissioning plan, that’s taking management attention and resources away from things that could be better applied,” Lochbaum said. “It’s diluting the focus, and it’s actually undermining safety. We’ll see if the NRC inspector general will light a fire or whatever it takes. If the NRC doesn’t want to do its job, McDonald’s is hiring. Perhaps then we could get a new slate of folks in there who will do their job rather than just take the money.”
Not everyone agrees that the new rules are necessary. Galef said in a July 15 letter to the NRC that its proposed changes were flawed “tactfully and substantially.”
“The NRC’s plans to allow for the dumping of nuclear waste into the Hudson River, the easing of tracking requirements as nuclear waste is tracked across the country, and to reduce the oversight of decommissioning facilities all fly in the face of the NRC’s mission of maintaining public safety,” she wrote. “If the NRC oversaw the safety of its nuclear facilities, operating and decommissioning alike, with the same zeal that it sought to limit its own ability to act on behalf of the people, it would be to our enduring benefit.”
Galef’s allegation that the NRC plan allows for “dumping of nuclear waste into the Hudson” is a reference to Holtec’s intention to release the water that was in the pools used to cool radioactive fuel rods once the rods have been removed. When the topic of “dumping” was brought up during the meeting, Burroni said that he took offense.
“We do not ‘dump to the river,’ ” he said. “We discharge into it.”
Regardless of the terminology, Burroni said that the level of radioactivity in the water that Holtec wants to release is 0.1 percent of the NRC’s allowed safety limits and no different from water Indian Point for decades circulated from the Hudson.
Lochbaum confirmed this, saying that he had examined records from the past 20 years and that the highest level of radioactive contamination reported near the plant was only 5 percent of the allowable limits. “I don’t see a problem with it at Indian Point, because you’re so far below the federal limits,” he said.
Richard Webster, a member of the environmental organization Riverkeeper and also a member of the task force, suggested that Burroni work out what the level of radioactivity was in terms of the limits for drinking water set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “If you’re way below the drinking-water limit, even before you discharge into the Hudson, that might inform some people’s opinions.” he said.
Or, it might not. After Webster’s comments, Susannah Glidden, speaking on behalf of communities that get their drinking water from the Hudson, said that they feel that there is no safe level of radiation.
“It’s not about measuring the amount and staying under ‘detectable’ limits,” she said. “It’s about what happens if we ingest it. The Hudson is a tidal basin flowing upstream and downstream. There are seven communities upstream and over 100,000 people in those seven communities who rely on the river for their drinking water. And they don’t want to see any more — I won’t say ‘dumping’ in the sense that you say it’s diluted and filtered and whatnot — but they don’t want anything going into the Hudson.”