LACEY – Water with “low level” amounts of radiation was recently discharged from the defunct Oyster Creek Nuclear Power PlantAccording to the Nuclear Regulatory Authority, which oversees radiation-related activity at the plant.
Holtech International About 24,000 gallons of water is from the facility as part of ongoing shutdown activities, NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said in an email. He said the water was released slowly beginning on September 7 and took two days to complete.
The water contains low levels of radiation and comes from the plant’s nuclear fuel rod cooling basin, reactor cavity and equipment pit, Sheehan said.
He said the water release is regulated by both the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Federal Environmental Protection Agency in order to protect the public.
Sheehan and Holtech spokesman Joseph Delmar said workers at the power plant had made such releases of low-level radioactive water throughout the facility’s operation. The procedure is part of routine operations, not only at Oyster Creek, but at nuclear plants across the country, Delmar said in an email to Asbury Park Press.
Water has been an integral part of Oyster Creek’s operation and safety for nearly 50 years of electricity generation. The steam heated by nuclear power was used to power the plant’s turbines, converting that energy into electricity. Water was also used to cool spent fuel rods inside a large basin.
Oyster Creek produced its last electricity in 2018. The age of the facility combined with competition from cheap natural gas has made the nuclear plant very expensive to operate. In 2019, then-owner Exelon sold the plant and its nearly $1 billion decommissioning trust fund to Holtec International and SNC-Lavalin, a Montreal, Canada-based engineering and construction company.
In May, Holtec announced that the last spent fuel rods from decades of power generation had been removed from the cooling sump and moved to dry drum storage. The company is now draining water from the pond, reactor and equipment storage pit, Sheehan said.
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“Our water use process is in line with our commitment to the environment,” Delmar said.
He said the radioactive water is collected in batches of 30,000 gallons and is run through a series of filters and metal removers. After that, the water is thoroughly tested, and then reused inside the plant or diluted and drained into the canals, he said.
“Our sample results show that the canals around Oyster Creek were and remain safe for swimming, fishing and boating,” he said.
Delmar said that since the shutdown began three years ago, the plant has, on average, discharged about 64,000 gallons of treated and diluted water per month into the canals.
Holtech said draining the water is the best way to handle the material compared to the company’s alternatives.
“Evaporation causes higher levels of radioactive material to be released due to concentration and a lack of dilution when the water becomes a gas,” Delmar said. “Shipping to another disposal site creates a larger carbon footprint with hundreds of truck trips.”
Local environmentalists say they are uneasy because plant officials did not share information about the launch before any action was taken.
Janet Tauro, New Jersey president of the clean environment organization Water Action, said the release of the water indicates a lack of transparency on the part of Holtech.
“The public was not alerted when the launches would take place,” said Tauro, who learned of his release while researching Holtech’s work on decommissioning the Pilgrim Power Plant in Massachusetts. “They (Ocean County residents) were not given the opportunity to ask questions.”
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Britta Forsberg, executive director of environmental group Save Barnegat Bay, said she was watching volunteers build conch reefs near the mouth of the Forked River just days after radioactive water was released from the station. Oyster reefs help prevent coastal erosion, filter bay waters and provide an important habitat for marine animals, but Forsberg said the effects of low-level radiation on growing oysters remain unknown.
“If I’m putting myself in the water, and doing all this work (building oyster reefs), I might want to ask a few questions and see what’s out there (bay waters).”
The release of radioactive water raises questions about regulatory oversight of nuclear facilities, said Edwin Lyman, director of the Nuclear Energy Safety Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Very little research has been done on the effects of discharges, Lyman said, to see if radiation from the releases builds up in specific animals or is concentrated in specific areas of the ecosystem over time.
“It is a difference between what is permissible and what is correct,” he said.
Delmar, of Holtech, said the company remains committed to environmental stewardship and operates within the law and the Nuclear Regulatory Authority’s restrictions on radioactive release.
But Lyman questioned the science behind those limits.
“The bigger question is the limits that the nuclear industry is allowed to adhere to, in terms of routine radioactive discharges, are those the right numbers?” he said.
Amanda Oglesby is a native of Ocean County and covers the towns of Brick, Barnegat, and Lacey as well as the environment. I worked in journalism for over a decade. You can reach her at OglesbyAPP, firstname.lastname@example.org, or 732-557-5701.