By John LaForge
Still dreaming of a nuclear reactor that is clean, safe and cheap? Holtec Decommissioning International Corp. is trying to turn that dream to a nightmare.
The newly minted subsidiary intends to dump roughly one million gallons radioactively contaminated nuclear reactor waste water into Cape Cod Bay, which happens to be a part of the protected Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. The million gallons are stagnating in the shutdown Pilgrim reactor’s waste fuel pool, formerly used to cool extremely hot uranium fuel rods which are taken from the reactor core (at around 5,092 degrees Fahrenheit) when fresh fuel is emplaced.
Holtec’s pollution plan has produced such a tsunami of public opposition that Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey convene[d] a congressional subcommittee field hearing in Plymouth, Massachusetts Friday, May 6, to air questions about an array of vexing problems with decommissioning the Pilgrim reactor, which is on the northwest shore of Cape Cod Bay. Markey is Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate, and Nuclear Safety.
Diane Turco is director of Cape Downwinders, a grassroots watchdog group working to protect local communities from the radiation risks created by Pilgrim. The group has helped bring critical attention to Holtec’s scandalous proposal and has organized gut-reaction outrage into a broad-based coalition of resistance that includes the fishing community, the labor movement, the real estate industry, as well as country’s major environmental organizations.
While Markey’s field hearing [was] being arranged, and Holtec work[ed] the bribery zone trying to win support, Turco has had to spend countless hours preparing to defend against trumped-up trespass charges resulting from a tour of the Pilgrim site she gave to a pair of National Public Radio reporters. The charge is crass political harassment, since neither of the reporters were charged, and attorneys have told Turco that a motion to dismiss based on selective prosecution is a no-brainer. But the court has not agreed to hold a motion hearing, so she has to prepare testimony and expert witnesses for a May 9 trial, even though the court could do the right thing and dismiss.
Waste water’s contents still secret
In a phone interview, Turco told me that Holtec has not even made public the radioactive character of the waste water it wants to spew to the public commons. If the state department of environmental protection has been informed, it has not divulged either the sorts of isotopes in the water or their concentration. This secrecy makes impossible an valid assessment of the risks involved and only aggravates public fear and hostility.
“If Holtec had true concern for public health and the environment and worked with transparency as they promised, it would halt any dumping until a viable solution is found acceptable”, Turco told the Cape Cod Times last December. “[D]umping into Cape Cod Bay just highlights the fact that the [US] Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Holtec don’t have a solution for what to do with nuclear waste. Contaminating our environment is …is immoral.”
The thought of Holtec’s river of poison being poured into Cape Cod brings to mind a wartime atrocity like poisoning wells. Holtec says it intends to dilute the radioactive waste water (like Tepco Corp’s plan to pour 1 million tons of radioactive waste water into the Pacific beginning next spring), but this is an irrelevant distraction.
The volume of radioactive chemicals, metals, or isotopes will not be changed or reduced at all by diluting. The same total of radioactive materials and their radioactivity are merely spread through a larger volume of water — all of which will then be poisoned for a very long time. Strontium-90 taints the water for 300 years (ten half-lives); iodine-129 for 160 million years; carbon-14 for 57,000 years. These carcinogens bio concentrate in ocean’s web of life and can reach humans in contaminated seafood, becoming an internal radiation emitter.
Last January 12, Sen. Markey and three other members of congress wrote to Holtec opposing the proposed discharge into Cape Cod Bay. The letter encouraged Holtec to consider alternative methods of disposal, none of which are good answers to nuclear power’s endless waste dilemma. Operators of the closed Vermont Yankee reactor shipped its poison water out of state, which moved the radiation risk to someone else’s water table. Evaporation is an option that risks spewing radionuclides on the wind. Nuclear power stories just don’t have happy endings.
John LaForge is a Co-director of Nukewatch, a peace and environmental justice group in Wisconsin, and edits its newsletter.