A month after Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a bill preventing Holtec from discharging water from Indian Point’s spent fuel pools into the Hudson River, the company said it hasn’t yet decided what it will do with the waste.
At the Sept. 21 meeting of the Indian Point Decommissioning Oversight Board, a representative for Holtec, which is decommissioning the plant on the Hudson River near Peekskill, said he was not going to discuss what options it was considering. But he did say it expects the process will take longer.
“There will be a schedule impact; I don’t think you can avoid it,” said Rich Burroni, who was attending his last oversight meeting because he was recently promoted to become Holtec’s chief nuclear officer.
No remaining options are without their opponents. Boiling the water so that it evaporates would transfer its radiation to the air. Dumping it in the ocean would violate international law. Mixing it with concrete and shipping it to the western U.S. to be buried, which other decommissioned plants have done, has been criticized as an environmental justice violation, since it passes the risks to another community.
Buchanan Mayor Theresa Knickerbocker, who had supported discharging the water into the river rather than storing it on-site, said that had the federal government fulfilled a decades-old promise to build a permanent storage facility for nuclear waste, the wastewater could have been shipped west without incident.
“We have all these activists here,” said Knickerbocker, referring to organizations who opposed the river discharge. “Time to get after the feds because that [wastewater] should be taken off the property.”
Knickerbocker reiterated her opposition to the option most popular with environmental groups: That the wastewater be filtered and stored in tanks on-site for 12 years, at which point the radioactive tritium that can’t be filtered out of the water will have decayed to half of its current potency. Because the tanks are notoriously leaky, which could result in an uncontrolled discharge, the mayor said that she will not grant the necessary permits needed for on-site storage.
Dave Lochbaum, the oversight board’s nuclear expert, noted that in 2009 a tank at Indian Point failed, leaking 10,000 gallons a day “for a while” until the leak was discovered. “The result of that is the contamination gets into places it shouldn’t be, in higher levels of contamination,” he said.
When asked why the tanks fail so often, Lochbaum said that the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) policies don’t encourage the development of better tanks.
“If you’ve ever paid a nickel for an overdue library book, you’ve paid a nickel more than the NRC has ever fined anyone for spilling millions of gallons of contaminated water,” he said. “Because there’s no sanction for doing wrong, there’s no incentive for getting it right.”
Lochbaum also had harsh words for the NRC when making a presentation on how the dry casks that store the spent fuel itself are inspected. Almost all of Indian Point’s spent nuclear fuel has been loaded into metal canisters, which are lowered into concrete hulls to protect them until they can be shipped to a yet-to-be-built permanent facility. The casks are supposed to be inspected on a regular basis to make sure they aren’t leaking or in danger of cracking.
But an audit by the NRC released this year found that for the past 20 years, nuclear power plants in the Southeast weren’t being inspected nearly as often or as robustly as they should have been. And inspectors weren’t qualified. Lochbaum said that in some cases, the inspectors didn’t even enter the fenced areas where the dry casks were located.
“They walked around the outside of the fence,” Lochbaum said. “That’s probably not adequate inspections.”
He also took issue with the fact that the NRC only spot-checks casks, rather than inspecting them all. At the same time, inspecting all of the casks properly is impractical because the process exposes inspectors to a low dose of radiation.
Public records indicate that the casks at Indian Point have been inspected more often and more thoroughly than those in the Southeast, but Lochbaum said that it’s still not clear if the inspectors are qualified or how many hours were spent.
The oversight board has asked the NRC for more detailed information on the inspection process at Indian Point, and expects to have answers in time for its next public meeting on Dec. 6.