Health experts raised concerns last week over the discharge of radioactive wastewater that may be dumped into the Hudson River as part of the decommissioning of the Indian Point nuclear power plants in Buchanan.

During a Jan. 26 online forum, health professionals and environmentalists addressed Holtec International’s plans to release one million gallons of wastewater from the spent fuel cooling pools, contending the discharge poses a serious threat to public health and the entire ecosystem.

Last September, Physicians for Social Responsibility–New York submitted a letter to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) regarding potential discharges of wastewater from the Indian Point site by Holtec.

“Exposure to toxic effluents including radionuclides poses a serious health and economic risk to communities up and down the Hudson River and can have negative impacts on real estate values,” the group stated. “Quantification and characterization of these discharges are needed in order to properly assess impacts. Independent expert analysis regarding potential health and environmental impacts from these exposures is imperative. Indeed, under the Endangered Species Act, independent environmental expertise is required prior to the discharge of radioactive water.”

After nearly 60 years generating approximately 25% of electricity consumed annually in the lower Hudson Valley and New York City, the last remaining nuclear reactor in operation, Unit 3, powered off April 30, 2021.

Located on the former 240-acre site of an amusement park, Unit 1 first went into service in 1962. Unit 2 took over from 1974 to 2020, while Unit 3 had been operating since 1976.

In 2017, Entergy, owners of the plant, New York State and Riverkeeper stunned local officials when they announced the two operating nuclear reactors at Indian Point would close. In November 2019, Entergy and Holtec filed an application for license transfer with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

In January 2020, the NRC announced that it was considering approval of an application by Entergy to transfer the Indian Point license — and the facility’s trust funds to pay for decommissioning — to Holtec to implement the facility’s decommissioning. The NRC approved the sale in November 2021.

During last week’s forum, some attendees pointed out there has been no prior disclosure of what pollutants or radioactive contaminants are in the wastewater or any public education on the environmental safety and public health risks associated with any potential discharges from the site.

It was noted a similar scenario is playing out in Massachusetts as local, state and federal officials, local organizations and government agencies there have been voicing strong objections to Holtec discharging radioactive wastewater from the Pilgrim nuclear facility into Cape Cod Bay as part of decommissioning operations there.

Dr. Helen Caldicott, acclaimed author, Nobel laureate and co-founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility, said, Physicists talk convincingly about ‘permissible doses’ of radiation. They consistently ignore internal emitters — radioactive elements from nuclear power plants that are ingested or inhaled into the body, giving very high doses to small volumes of cells. They focus instead on external radiation from sources outside the body. Doctors know that there is no such thing as a safe dose of radiation, and that harmful impacts are cumulative.”

Patrick O’Brien, Director of Community Affairs and Communication for Holtec, said the closest community that uses the Hudson for drinking water is Poughkeepsie, about 30 miles north of Indian Point.

“During operations and decommissioning, nuclear power plants, including Indian Point, periodically release treated water. These releases are regulated by U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and are typically indistinguishable from the natural radioactivity present in the environment,” O’Brien stated. “We have permits from both the EPA and State of New York that govern these treated releases and these continue to occur according to our permits.”

“These discharges are reported and publicly available on the NRC website Indian Point 2 & 3 |  and are often times fractional amounts of the allowable permitted limits,” O’Brien continued. “All nuclear power plants are required to have NRC-approved procedures that require treatment, such as filtration of the water to reduce the radioactivity to levels as low as reasonably achievable. The water can then be released through radiation monitors in batches that are sampled prior to release to ensure the water released is well below regulatory requirements. The facility routinely calibrates and maintains the equipment associated with the processing system and radiation monitors to ensure that they are operating properly and that we remain in compliance with permitted activities.”

Another online forum on decommissioning and other issues, such as emergency preparedness, spent fuel storage and long-term site contamination, is scheduled for Feb. 16.

By Rick Pezzullo