Nuclear Power Plant Plans To Dump Waste In Hudson

After its closure in 2021, the Indian Point nuclear power plant decommissioning process has led to concerns over toxic waste dumping in the Hudson River.
After its closure in 2021, the Indian Point nuclear power plant decommissioning process has led to concerns over toxic waste dumping in the Hudson River.

About two years after closing, the Indian Point nuclear power plant announced on Feb. 2 that dumping one million gallons of radioactive wastewater in the Hudson River is its best option. As part of the plant’s demanding and lengthy closing procedure, this action was deemed the “best option” by the owner of the plant, Holtec International, and is anticipated to begin as early as August 2023. This has heightened the polarizing debate between the company and locals over Holtec’s plan to dump wastewater. 

A nuclear power plant relies on heat produced by nuclear fission to heat water. The heated water produces steam, which spins turbines in order to create electricity. Since power is generated by fission, nuclear power produces zero emissions and is considered a clean energy source. However, nuclear power plants are becoming more expensive to maintain as natural gas grows more popular in both the environmental and economic sectors. This transition has catalyzed the shutdown of nuclear power plants, one of which being the Indian Point plant. 

The Indian Point plant is located in Buchanan, NY and had three pressurized water reactors while operating. The first plant opened in 1962 and ran until 1974. The second opened in 1974 and the third in 1976, but closed in 2020 and 2021, respectively. The abrupt end to the plant’s operations was driven by the state government’s push to transition from nuclear power to natural gas as it is both cheaper and more sustainable. After producing carbon-free energy and establishing itself as one of New York’s largest plants, matching the carbon-free generation capacity of Indian Point following its shutdown will be difficult. It will take three different natural gas-fired plants to match the amount of zero-emissions energy Indian Point was producing and supplying. 

The Indian Point power plant closed in April 2021. The owner-operator of the plant changed from Entergy to Holtec International in May 2021. This transition was the first step of Holtec’s systematic plan to shut down the plant. Holtec received $2.4 billion in funds from ratepayers to carry out the ambitious 12-year plan which works in accordance with the town’s goal of repurposing the site. 

Despite the smooth transfer of power, Holtec is struggling to reach an agreement with the surrounding community when it comes to the disposal of leftover radioactive waste. It is a normal practice for power plants to discharge radioactive water into surrounding waterways. However, climate activists and protective locals are calling for a change of standards. 

Holtec reserves all rights to dispose of the wastewater as it pleases — environmental ethics and community concern aside. As a standard for nuclear plants, Holtec does not need any federal, state or local clearance to dispose of wastewater. The plant has the same legal rights as it did when operating. Thus, the debacle relies not on policy or permit limitations but on modern concerns for the environment and concerns of those who live nearby. 

Concern from the locals comes from the tritium present in the one million gallons of wastewater that may be dumped into the Hudson. Tritium is a byproduct of nuclear fission that cannot be filtered out of water because the two substances are so chemically similar. Because they are so alike, tritium can be integrated into the water cycle which can have a multitude of possible impacts on the biosphere. Exposure to excessive tritium can have physiological effects, including behavior and reproduction issues as well as genetic damage. An excessive intake of tritium by humans has also been linked to cancer, with increased concerns for children and pregnant individuals. 

However, Holtec has remained steadfast in its claim that it would take an excessive amount of tritium to be potentially harmful — an amount that is not present in the waste Holtec wants to dump. The company has argued that a charcoal and resin treatment of water to remove metals and chloride along with the natural dilution of waste by the flow of the river would keep the risk low and civilians safe. 

The proposed alternative to dumping would be for the plant to store wastewater containing tritium decay onsite using properly-sealed containers. Federal regulations allocate 60 years for the complete decommissioning of nuclear plants, giving the wastewater ample time to decay over the 12 years it takes for the tritium to decay to half its original amount. This alternative allows for more flexibility beyond regulations, as the waste could sit at the site after the 60 years have passed. 

Director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists Edwin Lyman commented to Gothamist that the dumping of waste “may only cause a low risk to the environment as far as we know, but there are other options here, and why not try to minimize the harm?” He added that “in the long term, it’s going to degrade,” referring to the tritium.

The option of storing the waste onsite also appeals to logic, as other radioactive material such as spent fuel generated by plant operations will remain at the site and take hundreds of years to decay. Since that waste has nowhere to go, those advocating against the dumping find no reason for the immediate disposal of the tritium waste into the Hudson River.

Many environmental concerns regarding this issue stem from the current state of the Hudson Valley. Following an era of industrial pollution impacting the river and surrounding land, 200 miles of the Hudson Valley are classified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a superfund site.  A superfund site is an area designated to receive funds from the U.S. federal government for the cleanup of toxic wastes. The Hudson Valley is one of the largest superfund sites in the country. This status of the Hudson Valley and the possibility of further damage to the environment has powered passionate arguments from locals which have made Holtec’s plan a highly contested issue. 

The next meeting of the Indian Point Decommission Oversight Board will take place April 27 at Cortlandt Town Hall.