Battles brew over radioactive wastewater discharge from shuttered nuclear plants

By Dana Drugmand

An effort by New York to ban radioactive waste from polluting the Hudson River has embroiled the state in a bitter legal battle emblematic of challenges facing communities across the country as they wrestle with what to do with the waste from shuttered nuclear power plants.

At the heart of the matter in New York is a law enacted last August that aims to block plans by Holtec International to discharge more than one million gallons of radioactive wastewater into the river during the decommissioning of the Indian Point nuclear power plant. The company sued the state in April, arguing that the discharge was allowed under federal regulations, which preempt state regulation.

The state filed a countersuit, asking the US District Court for the Southern District of New York to dismiss Holtec’s claims and validating the state new.

The United States has long had the largest nuclear power plant fleet in the world, with nuclear power accounting for roughly 20% of annual electricity generation from the late 1980s into 2020, according to the US Congressional Research Service. There are currently more than 90 commercial nuclear reactors in operation at 54 nuclear power plants in 28 states. But many have been closed over the last decade, with more scheduled for closure, due to economic challenges and battles with environmental and public health advocates who cite a number of risks associated with the facilities.

The battlegrounds extend far beyond New York. Holtec is facing similar community opposition to its plan to discharge radioactive wastewater from the decommissioning Pilgrim nuclear plant in eastern Massachusetts into Cape Cod Bay, for instance.

“It’s very clear no one wants this radioactive waste in the water,” said Santosh Nandabalan, an organizer with Food & Water Watch who campaigns against the radioactive wastewater dumping. “I think Holtec needs to get with the program now that there’s a law, and we’re going to hold them accountable to it by continuing to use this people power to ensure our Hudson River does not become a dumping ground.”

Holtec spokesman Patrick O’Brien told The New Lede that Holtec’s goal is to “safely decommission these plants and return the property to be economic engines for the communities that they reside in.” He said the company has “been open and forthright… answering questions as they have arisen.”

Opponents to discharging the radioactive wastewater, according to O’Brien, are trying to “push fear over facts.” He said the “reality [is] that you get more radiation from ingesting a banana or brasil nuts that you would from discharge.”