Dumping 1M gallons of radioactive water in Hudson is ‘best option,’ per Indian Point nuclear plant owner

Sign warning of radioactive materials is seen on a fence around a containment building at at Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, New York, April 26, 2021.
Seth Wenig/AP/Shutterstock

The owner of the defunct Indian Point nuclear facility says it’s planning to dump about 1 million gallons of radioactive water into the Hudson River. The move, which the company describes as the “best option” for the waste, could happen as early as August.

A Feb. 2 meeting of the Indian Point Decommissioning Oversight Board heated up when the plant’s owner Holtec International disclosed the plan as part of its lengthy closure process. The contaminated water could just naturally — and safely — decay in storage onsite.

Environmental groups and residents are also concerned this could harm their community, as the Hudson River is already a federally designated toxic Superfund site. Rich Burroni, Holtec’s site vice president for Indian Point, agreed to give the community at least a month’s notice before any radioactive discharge into the Hudson River begins.

But Holtec is well within its legal rights and permits to discharge waste at the same rate as it did when operating, and it does not need federal, state or local approval to dump the contaminated water. This practice is standard for nuclear plants.

Nearly two years have passed since Indian Point shut down its third and final reactor in the village of Buchanan, located on the Hudson’s east bank about 30 miles north of Midtown. Toward the end of its 59-year lifespan, the plant had more than a 2,000 megawatt capacity — providing electricity to more than 2 million homes, or 13% of the state’s power demand.

Holtec received about $2.4 billion in funds, shouldered by ratepayers, to decommission the plant. And it wants to do so in 12 years, which is in accordance with town’s wishes to repurpose the site. But Holtec and the surrounding community are still debating what to do with Indian Point’s radioactive remnants.

“Yes, you can do it [discharge radioactive water]. It’s normal practice. But should you when you have other options that might avoid this additional release of radioactivity to the environment?” said Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science advocacy organization. “It 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?”

“Virtually all nuclear plants in the U.S. discharge water containing low levels of radioactivity to the waterway on which they are located,” Neil Shaheen, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s public affairs officer, stated via email. “Tritium cannot be filtered out, but a member of the public would have to ingest a significant amount of it for there to be even the possibility of a health concern and radioactive water released from Indian Point is greatly diluted by the flows in the Hudson River.”

The soon-to-be-released water has been treated and filtered with charcoal and resin, which removes metals and chloride. But it still contains low levels of tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen and a byproduct of nuclear fission, that could accumulate in the Hudson River. Humans can breathe in or ingest tritium, which emits low levels of beta radiation as it decays and eventually becomes helium. In large quantities, it can elevate the risk of cancer. Tritium also cannot be extracted from water because the two are so chemically similar.

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