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 Sheehan, Nuclear Regulatory Commission's public affairs officer

“Virtually all nuclear plants in the U.S. discharge water containing low levels of radioactivity to the waterway on which they are located,” Neil Sheehan, 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.

“It’s time to draw the line against using the Hudson as a dumping ground for tritium, a radioactive isotope found in the wastewater,” read a Feb. 10 blog statement by Riverkeeper, a local environmental advocacy group.

Options are limited when it comes to disposing of radioactive waste, and only three methods are typically used for tainted water. The first and most expedient one is to dump small batches of about 18,000 gallons intermittently, which is the method favored by Holtec. The second way is to slowly evaporate the radioactive water and release it into the atmosphere, which Lyman said is “hardly any better than pouring it into the river.” The third procedure entails transporting the contaminated substance to another state, which could pose an environmental justice issue depending on where it lands.

Con Edison's Indian Point nuclear power station (circa 1963) is located on the Hudson River about 24 miles north of New York City. The station became operable in 1962.

“You are taking hundreds of truck trips, using fossil fuels, thousands of miles to then either liquidly discharge or evaporate or mix and bury that water in the same manner you could do here,” said Patrick O’Brien, Holtec International’s director of government affairs and communications.

Lyman said a fourth option would be leaving the radioactive water onsite to decay over time into non-harmful helium. “Keep storing indefinitely and eventually the problem will solve itself," he said.

For tritium, this process would take just over 24 years. Lyman considers this the best option because it minimizes the effects on the environment. It’s also viable because other radioactive material — spent fuel generated from operating the plant — remains onsite and will take hundreds of thousands of years to decay. This material includes plutonium and uranium.

Lyman said this waste has no place to go and will be there for a long time, so there’s no rush to deal with the radioactive water while spent fuel continues to sit on the property. Most radioactive waste is stored where it is generated. And federal regulations allow 60 years for decommissioning. That spent fuel could remain at the site even after the decommissioning is completed, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“In the long term, it's going to degrade, and the only way to protect the environment from that degradation is to bury it in a deep geological repository,” Lyman said.

Holtec has a decommissioning plan and already transferred the spent fuel from two of its three inoperative reactors into leak-tight steel cylinders, a method known as dry cask storage. It plans to remove the third unit’s spent fuel later this year.

These dry casks will remain at the facility until an interim or permanent depository becomes available. Currently, the U.S. has no permanent sites for this waste, and more than 90,000 metric tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste, including spent fuel, remains near its site of origin without permanent storage, according to Chemical & Engineering News.

Holtec is investigating the option of interim storage in New Mexico and expects to get a license for it by next month.

The next meeting for the Indian Point Decommissioning Oversight Board will take place on April 27 at 6 p.m. at Cortlandt Town Hall. Participants have the option to attend virtually.

The article was updated: The spelling of Neil Sheehan, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's public affairs officer, was corrected.