Cape Cod Bay will probably be polluted with radioactive waste within 10 years


Rachel Choi

Illustration by Rachel Choi

By Adri Pray, Editor-at-large

It is projected that by 2027 Holtec International will have disposed of one million gallons of potentially radioactive water into Cape Cod Bay. The self-described “diverse energy company” purchased the plant in 2019 with the ultimate goal of finishing the decommissioning process in a record eight years rather than in 60, like fellow nuclear energy company Entergy estimates the decommissioning will be done.

The first Boston Globe headline I saw about this was in May. The story asked year-round Cape locals from various industries how they felt about the pending nuclear dump and, just as one could guess, not a single response was positive.

Cape Cod is home to 228,996 residents year round and over 500,000 residents in the summer. Polluting the Bay pollutes all of those homes, kills the tourism industry, and harms the environment with unknown contanimates. Zinc, lead, and carcinogenic chemicals like PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl) are believed to be in the water, but there has been no official confirmation—not even Holtec knows.

The Pilgrim nuclear plant in Plymouth, MA operated for 47 years before being shut down in 2019 by Holtec International, a “diversifying energy technology” company that specializes in carbon-free power generation, specifically solar and nuclear energy.

Shortly after the purchase, Holtec released a statement reassuring Massachusetts residents the decommissioning of the plant would replicate the “superb record of public health and safety.” The company outlined its plan to store the one million gallons of nuclear waste water in a “structurally impregnatable dry storage system” in less than three years, something they note is “unprecedented in [the] history of decommissioning nuclear plants.” When the waste is fully stored, the statement continued, the containers will be shipped to Holtec’s storage facility called HI-STORE in New Mexico.

The problem now is disposing of the water that circulated through the reactor vessel and nuclear fuel, but an official toxin report hasn’t been released. Holtec is considering four disposal options: trucking the water to another facility, evaporating the water and discharging vapor through a ventilation system, and long-term on-site storage.

The fourth option, arguably the cheapest and the one Holtec is likely to opt for, is dumping one million gallons of potentially radioactive—but treated—water into Cape Cod Bay.

Contaminating the Bay would kill Cape Cod’s tourism industry. The island’s population nearly doubles in the summer and the economy inflates drastically in response. Many local small businesses rely on tourists to flock to the Cape every summer so they can make enough money to hope to stay open through the winter.

As I went through high school, I worked at a locally-owned Cape business that relied on the busy summers to make it through the winter. I worked there for six years and saw the rapid incline of tourist demand firsthand. Dumping this toxic waste into a resource the local population needs year-round should not even be considered.

Although the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Holtec may dump the potentially radioactive into the Bay if the radioactivity levels are below a certain level, the Environmental Protection Agency warned Holtec that dumping the waste into the Bay is in clear violation of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit.

The least likely option Holtec would consider is evaporating the water, which it says it has done with 680,000 gallons over the past two years, but would be more challenging to do now because the old nuclear fuel used to make the vapor is in storage and can no longer be used as a heat source. 

Long-term on-site storage could, at best, delay the inevitable. It’s not safe for any living thing to be around radioactive waste for long, and to ensure the safety of the community, Holtec would have to post guards to keep the plant secure.

Trucking the water to a secure facility, storing it, and treating it would be the best option overall. Cape Cod’s economy wouldn’t die, the tourism industry would continue to thrive, locals could work year round without worrying their livelihood could be cut short at any moment, and Holtec can stay on track in decommissioning its plant.

As the future of our environment is so uncertain in this time of climate change denial, we must keep a watchful eye on the disposal of nuclear energy, especially because Japan is considering nearly the same thing with its plant, Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, except it proposes the release of 1.25 million gallons of treated radioactive wastewater into the ocean.

While Holtec hasn’t released an official decision, the future of Cape Cod Bay seems grim. It’s unfair the local population has very little say in this process, as this very well could make living on Cape Cod unsustainable. Many residents are preparing to be displaced by the potentially devastating effects of nuclear pollution.

Entertaining the idea of nuclear pollution in any instance opens the door for detrimental environmental consequences. This decommissioning will help forge the precedent of future nuclear decommissioning processes, as this isn’t the first time this has happened, and it won’t be the last.