The Bomb Next Door

Eighty years into the atomic age, U.S. nuclear power reactors have produced several million tons of radioactive waste—and we still have no idea how to

The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Massachusetts, closed permanently in 2019. The nuclear waste stored at the facility contains 20 times the radioactive material released at Chernobyl. (U.S. Department of Energy)
The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Massachusetts, closed permanently in 2019. The nuclear waste stored at the facility contains 20 times the radioactive material released at Chernobyl. (U.S. Department of Energy)

In March 1979, the core of the Unit 2 reactor at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear power plant melted down and spewed up to 22 million curies of radioactive gas into the atmosphere—enough to relieve pressure on the reactor’s containment building and keep it from exploding. Three Mile Island was neither the first nor the most serious nuclear accident in U.S. history, but previous disasters, such as the 1959 meltdown at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in suburban Los Angeles, had been kept secret. This time, state authorities issued a radiation warning, and about 140,000 people in the Susquehanna River Valley evacuated the area.

At the time, the United States had 140 operating reactors, with another 120 under construction or awaiting approval. The incident at Three Mile Island—which demonstrated the dangers inherent in splitting atoms, even for nonmilitary purposes—marked a turning point in America’s thinking about nuclear energy. Construction halted. New contracts disappeared. Underperforming reactors were shut down. A short-lived nuclear renaissance in the early 2000s ended in huge cost overruns and canceled contracts. It is not difficult to understand why. Reactors continue to fail about once every decade, and with increasing severity. In 1986, the Unit 4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine exploded, necessitating a 30-kilometer exclusion zone that left the surrounding area locked in a kind of radioactive time capsule and the reactor itself encased in a concrete sarcophagus. (Earlier this year, invading Russian troops captured the facility, looting and destroying a laboratory that had been used to monitor radioactivity, before they fled back across the border. As the war rages on, Ukraine’s 15 other reactors are at heightened risk of meltdown.) In March 2011, in the wake of a devastating earthquake and tsunami, three nuclear reactors and a fuel storage pool exploded at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Radiation from the plant continues to flow into the sea, and efforts to contain the disaster will continue for at least another 40 years.

Splitting atoms to boil water was never a good idea. Nuclear energy produces nuclear waste, and 80 years into the nuclear age, we still have no idea what to do with these lethal byproducts. In the next decade, the United States will begin shutting down about a hundred nuclear power plants that have reached the end of their useful lives. Mainly built in the 1970s, these reactors are filled with spent fuel, 100,000 tons of radioactive waste that must be hauled somewhere or stored in special containers. Altogether, we must dispose of several million tons of nuclear waste, primarily fuel rods loaded with uranium pellets, but also reactor vessels and entire buildings that have become radioactive after four decades of service.

Since plans to construct a nuclear waste storage facility under Yucca Mountain in Nevada fell through in 2010, the United States has no permanent place to put its radioactive trash. Two temporary sites, little more than parking lots in southeastern New Mexico and western Texas, have yet to open. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a mine in Carlsbad, New Mexico, holding radioactive waste from Los Alamos and other national laboratories, exploded in 2014, causing $2 billion in damage and shutting down most of this facility. For now, waste from the country’s shuttered nuclear power plants is being packed into metal cans and lined up like oversize bowling pins next to the reactors themselves.

Handling atomic trash is a dangerous and specialized business. It is also remarkably lucrative. “More than half of America’s nuclear reactors are bleeding cash, racking up losses” approaching $3 billion per year, Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported in 2017. Anyone who wants to buy one of these reactors can get one cheap. This includes people like Krishna Pal Singh. Born in 1947 in Patna, India, Singh is an engineer trained at the Bihar Institute of Technology in eastern India and at the University of Pennsylvania, where he received a PhD in mechanical engineering in 1972. Singh, who lives in a $17 million dockside house in Jupiter, Florida, owns and operates Holtec, the portmanteau for Holistic Technologies, an atomic trash hauler with contracts in more than a dozen countries—including Ukraine, where Holtec is responsible for disposing of waste from Chernobyl and the country’s other nuclear power plants.

Singh got his start as an engineer at the Joseph Oat Company, a designer of pressure vessels and reactors in Camden, New Jersey, but struck out on his own in 1986. At first, he confined his business to manufacturing thin-walled canisters for storing nuclear waste and building waste-storage sites, but more recently he has begun acquiring nuclear reactors themselves. In 2021, he bought New York’s three Indian Point reactors, and assuming his bid to acquire two more reactors on Lake Michigan is successful, Singh will be the owner of five power plants with seven atomic reactors.

Singh’s business model is simple: he buys reactors for pennies on the dollar from utilities that can no longer afford to run them. In doing so, he commits himself to putting the plant’s nuclear waste in casks and “rubblizing” its buildings—that is, demolishing them onsite—or breaking them up and hauling them away. The attraction for Holtec is the money paid by ratepayers (public utilities customers) to decommission nuclear power plants.

After the meltdown at Three Mile Island, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) began requiring utilities to collect money from their customers that would be placed in trust funds to finance the eventual closing of their nuclear reactors. The NRC gave utilities 60 years to decommission an atomic power plant, and most utilities had planned to take all the time allotted. They would shutter their plants and walk away. The decommissioning trust funds—today, worth billions of dollars—would continue growing while the question of what to do with the nuclear waste would be kicked into the future.

Here Singh saw his opportunity and quickly gained NRC approval to buy atomic reactors and assume the burden of decommissioning them in as little as 10 years. Holtec also promised to transport the country’s nuclear waste to a temporary storage facility in the dry shrubland of southeastern New Mexico—a part of the country known as Nuclear Alley because of all the radioactive
material stored there. The world’s first atomic weapon was exploded nearby at the Trinity test site in July 1945, and the area remains radioactive, littered with the green, glassy substance known as trinitite. Eight decades on, the Jornada del Muerto, the desert basin known as the Route of the Dead Man, is set to suffer more radioactive contamination.

Around the world, private companies that handle nuclear waste disposal generally profit by doing the work as quickly and cheaply as possible. In the United States, however, the federal government insures reactors because private companies refuse to assume the risk of a nuclear meltdown. As mandated by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, the government is also on the hook for storing the nation’s nuclear waste, including the toxic stuff that will remain lethal for more than a million years. When the Yucca Mountain project was canceled, companies that owned nuclear reactors began suing the federal government for breach of contract. The government has already paid $8 billion in legal penalties, and the industry estimates that payouts will reach $100 billion before even a temporary solution can be found. Mark Cooper of the Vermont Law School predicts that the total cost of storing nuclear waste for the next three centuries will range from $210 billion to $350 billion. And with that much money in play, opportunities abound for a savvy actor like Holtec, which racks up profits by playing both sides. By acquiring reactors from Michigan to Cape Cod, it receives billions of trust fund dollars for decommissioning atomic power plants. At the same time, it collects billions of dollars for not being able to decommission them.

Trash collection is a tough business, and Holtec has sometimes pursued its interests a bit too aggressively. In 2002, a Holtec official, presumed to be Singh, was caught on tape arranging for a $54,000 bribe to be paid to a nuclear plant official in Alabama. Minutes after the call, federal agents interviewed Singh in his office. No criminal charges resulted, but in 2010, Holtec was barred from working for the Tennessee Valley Authority for two months and fined $2 million—the largest penalty in the utility’s history. When the company failed to mention this fact—“an oversight,” its representative said—the State of New Jersey withheld a $260 million tax break that it had awarded to Holtec for the construction of a new factory in the Camden shipyards. Holtec sued, alleging it had been “financially wounded” by the decision, and a New Jersey judge restored the money in January 2022. The decision is under appeal.

Despite taking over the biggest environmental cleanup in U.S. history, Holtec has never actually decommissioned a nuclear reactor. Before it can, the company will need to follow through on plans to build a “consolidated interim storage facility” in New Mexico’s Nuclear Alley. Holtec imagines a facility large enough to hold the nation’s entire stockpile of 83,000 metric tons of high-level waste, which is increasing at the rate of 2,000 tons per year. This radioactive material will need to be trundled to the site on special railcars weighing 180 tons apiece. It will then be buried on top of an aquifer that supplies water to citizens in eight states. Many people think this is a bad idea, including Hector Balderas, New Mexico’s attorney general, who is suing the NRC for authorizing the Holtec project. The state’s 47-page legal brief describes “terrible misrepresentations and deficiencies” in Holtec’s plan and alleges that the NRC colluded with the company in granting permission to use a site “inescapably and unalterably unsuitable for the storage of high-level radioactive waste.”

Balderas accuses Holtec of pursuing “house-of-cards business plans” that rely on utility trust funds and government payouts to outrun its debt. Attorneys general of New York and Massachusetts have likewise speculated on what might happen if the company goes bankrupt and walks away from its nuclear dump in New Mexico or, more likely, leaves radioactive trash piled next to reactors across the country. Holtec’s casks are warrantied against manufacturing defects for 25 years and are licensed for 40 years, but their contents will remain radioactive for millennia. Further complicating matters is Holtec’s corporate structure: its nuclear power plants are purchased by Holtec subsidiaries, limited liability companies (LLCs) that are designed to shield their corporate parent from legal jeopardy.

Holtec’s reliance on LLCs might have something to do with the company’s spotty safety record. When one of its canisters slipped and nearly plunged 18 feet into a hole dug at the San Onofre atomic plant near San Diego, the NRC described the incident as a “near miss.” In 2018, when NRC inspectors found that Holtec had made unauthorized and “potentially safety significant” changes in the design of its casks—using pins that either broke or bent under the weight of the fuel assemblies loaded on top of them—Singh, identifying himself as the company’s chief technology officer, as well as being president, CEO, and chairman of the board, was summoned to a public hearing at NRC headquarters outside Washington. “The industry has been inadequately sensitive to the interrelationship between manufacturing and design,” Singh said. “This was definitely, definitely an eye-opener for us. We have learned big time how to treat manufacturing evolutions more respectfully.”

Singh admitted during the hearing that he had acted out of “technical greed,” referring to design changes made to get helium—the cooling agent in his casks—to circulate more freely. But he might just as well have been describing Holtec’s cost-cutting measures, which, critics say, prioritize profit over public safety. Holtec’s casks are a half-inch thick and include no pressure monitors or temperature sensors. European nuclear facilities, by contrast, use German-made casks that are anywhere from 11 to 20 inches thick, each one equipped with two lids and an array of safety gauges, and these casks are stored in heavily guarded buildings.

The danger lies not only in the reliability of Holtec’s casks but also in how they’re stored. “They’re like pins at the end of a bowling alley,” Blanch said. “If I were a terrorist and wanted to do harm, I know what I would do.”

In 2020, Paul Blanch, a nuclear engineer with more than 40 years of experience, warned of the dangers inherent in Holtec’s storage system. He was speaking before the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel, a group appointed by the Massachusetts legislature and town of Plymouth to keep an eye on the nearby Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, which Holtec had acquired the previous year. Blanch began his career on the USS Patrick Henry, a ballistic missile submarine, where he spent months at a time eating and sleeping within a hundred feet of the ship’s atomic reactor. He told the panel that he felt safer in a submerged nuclear submarine than he would in the vicinity of one of Holtec’s thin-walled storage casks. “There are millions and millions of curies of radiation in each of these casks,” he said. “One curie can kill you. What happens when just one container fails?” The casks’ design is “severely deficient,” he continued. “There are no relief valves to release pressure buildup, no meaningful accident analysis or aging management program, no way to inspect the cask interiors, and no way to repair the casks if something happens.”

Singh had conceded as much to a California advisory panel in 2014, saying that even a microscopic crack would release “millions of curies of radioactivity coming out of the canister.” His solution? “Isolate that canister in a cask that keeps it cool”—creating, in effect, a radioactive Russian matryoshka doll. The danger lies not only in the reliability of Holtec’s casks but also in how they are stored. “They’re like pins at the end of a bowling alley,” Blanch said at the Plymouth citizens advisory panel meeting. “If I was a terrorist and wanted to do harm, I know what I would do.” The thin-walled casks at the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station sit next to a busy country road, whereas at Chernobyl, Holtec uses thicker, double-walled casks, buried in a deep forest enclave.

Why should the people of Massachusetts rely on technology inferior to that used in Ukraine? When I posed this question to Joseph Delmar, Holtec’s senior director of government affairs and communications, he said, “Our casks are certified by the NRC. This is a matter of client preference on what they prefer to use.”

The Pilgrim power plant, built by the Boston Edison utility company in 1972, has long been, according to the NRC, “one of the worst-run” nuclear reactors in the United States. It opened with no filters and bad fuel, leaking radioactivity. In 1982, the NRC fined Boston Edison half a million dollars for filing fake safety reports. Pilgrim temporarily closed again a year later, and in 1986 it ceased operation for nearly three years because of corroding pipes, hydrogen leaks, broken valves, and other mechanical failures. In 2012, a year after the Fukushima disaster, the NRC extended Pilgrim’s operating license by 20 years, but regulators remained concerned. They downgraded the plant’s safety status until it entered the NRC’s “Degraded Cornerstone Column” in 2015—one step above a mandatory shutdown. In 2019, to avoid expensive repairs, Pilgrim was finally closed for good.

The plant’s current status dates from the late 1990s. Amid a rising tide of deregulation, power plants began drawing interest from investors. Could atomic energy survive in these competitive markets, where wind, solar, and hydropower—not to mention natural gas, now flowing in copious amounts thanks to fracking—were less expensive? The New Orleans–based Entergy Corporation took the bet and in 1999 began buying utilities up north. To the five nuclear reactors it already owned, Entergy added six more, including Pilgrim and New York’s Indian Point.

Entergy bought Pilgrim for what it thought was the bargain price of $80 million, snapped up reactors in Vermont and Michigan, and planned to buy another dozen when the bottom fell out of the market. Saddled with old reactors and blindsided by the falling price of renewables and natural gas, the company lost half its market value in three years. In 2013, Entergy started closing its northern reactors.

My house near the tip of Cape Cod is downwind from the Pilgrim reactor—and near enough to the Rocky Point peninsula that on a clear day I can see it from my local beach. On a gray, unseasonably warm day in December, I decide to take a closer look.

I approach Pilgrim from the south, driving through the tidal wetlands around Plymouth. The road to the reactor, aptly named Power House Road, is made from slabs of concrete laid over sand. As my car rolls along, going thunk thunk thunk, the road reminds me of the frost-heaved tracks that I found when driving through Chernobyl’s nuclear exclusion zone in 2018. Arriving at Pilgrim’s front gate, I park my car in the company lot and walk along the perimeter fence, staring at the junked trucks and empty guard towers inside. The plant itself, once a state-of-the-art General Electric Mark 1 boiling-water reactor, is now a hunk of industrial waste, slated to be rubblized, ground into dust, and then buried or hauled off to a dump for low-level nuclear waste in Andrews, Texas. At the prefab hut that serves as the main gate into the factory, I stop and listen to the banter between a guard and a guy in a pickup truck with a big silver toolbox in the truck bed.

“You’re taking off?” the guard asks. “Even before you get your severance pay?”

“Yep,” says the guy in the truck. “It’s time to roll.”

Pilgrim’s nearly 600 workers were cut to a few hundred after the plant was shut, and now that the fuel pool has been emptied of radioactive rods, the workforce is being reduced to a few dozen guards and maintenance workers. (In March, Holtec locked out all 60 of Pilgrim’s skilled union workers so it could replace them with nonunionized labor.)

Behind the gatehouse, on a hillside overlooking the plant, I see a building that resembles a restaurant or a bar with a view out to sea. I drive around to take a look. Signs flanking the entryway warn me that this is a nuclear exclusion zone, but with no barrier on the road, I head up to an empty parking lot at the top of the hill. At the far end sits the building I had seen: originally a training center for plant employees, it later housed a health club—until people realized that this site, which sits above Pilgrim’s reactor, had the area’s highest radiation readings.

At the upper edge of the parking lot, beyond a low wall of concrete barriers with a pedestrian walkway opened between them, I find myself staring at Pilgrim’s lethal legacy—800 tons of irradiated spent fuel from the reactor that has been loaded into metal cans, injected with helium, enrobed in concrete, and hauled to this hilltop overlooking Cape Cod Bay. Bolted onto a concrete pad the size of a high school gymnasium are 65 steel canisters painted gunmetal gray, each one 18 feet tall and 11 feet wide and weighing about as much as a Boeing 747. Together they contain more than 20 times the radioactive material released at Chernobyl.

The canisters were installed in 2020 and ’21, after being carried uphill by an 80-wheel truck with solid rubber tires, and already they look weathered. The air vents near the top are covered with bird droppings and water stains, and the sides of the casks are piebald with a white glaze spreading over them. The storage yard is open to the air and guarded by nothing more than a double run of chainlink fencing with a small gap between the inside and outside perimeters.

The NRC calls this an Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation, which is a fancy name for a parking lot loaded with radioactive cans. I walk along the fence, from one end of the site to the other. I wave to the security cameras hanging from poles inside the fence, but no one comes to ask me what I am doing. Unlike the metallic taste that I noticed at the back of my throat when walking through the heavily contaminated areas near Fukushima, here I smell nothing but salt air. Without a Geiger counter or dosimeter clicking in the background, all I hear is the wind rushing up the hillside.

I get back in my car and drive along another stretch of Power House Road, this one heading downhill toward Cape Cod Bay. Before reaching the water, I turn onto a road that leads up to a second guardhouse. This one looks occupied. Two pickup trucks are parked in front. No one comes out to talk to me. I start walking along the perimeter fence, staring through the chain links at the gray casks lined up in front of me. They are flecked with salt spray, and this time I notice birds beginning to nest in the air vents. Beyond the guardhouse I find a patio outfitted with a Weber grill and some lawn chairs. I imagine this is where the guards spend their summer nights grilling hamburgers and nursing beers. I sit in a lawn chair and wonder what the dose levels might be when the patio is downwind of Pilgrim’s nuclear fuel.

Power House Road ends at a rocky breakwater that curves through the bay in front of the power station, ostensibly protecting it from waves, but not big ones, as the breakwater rises only a few feet above the water line. Behind the turbine hall is a guard tower perched on metal stilts. It is empty. A sign in front of me reads, “Security personnel are authorized to use deadly force to protect the safety of this facility.”

I climb on top of the breakwater. Below me is Pilgrim’s discharge canal, the rock-lined stream that, for 46 years, dumped hot water from the reactor into Cape Cod Bay. Every day, Pilgrim sucked in 500 million gallons to keep the reactor from melting down by cooling the steam in its condensers. Thirty minutes later and 30 degrees Fahrenheit warmer, laced with chlorine and other chemicals, the effluent flowed back into the ocean. When fish and shellfish were trapped in Pilgrim’s intake screens, it was called an “impingement event.” At last count, 80 species of fish and marine life had been impinged, not to mention the millions of fish eggs that were “entrained,” or sucked into the reactor’s cooling coils, where they died from heat or chlorine.

On days when workers flushed dead marine life and algae from the system, the water was heated to more than 100 degrees, producing a thermal plume that stretched five miles into the Atlantic. Pilgrim was forced to power down whenever the bay became too warm to cool the reactor. Last year, for the sixth year in a row, ocean temperatures climbed to their highest level on record. Almost all of the world’s 441 nuclear reactors are water-cooled. The least efficient are boiling-water reactors with “once-through” cooling systems, like Pilgrim’s. Built without cooling towers, these reactors suck in water and aquatic life and waste two-thirds of their energy heating the sea.

Engineers knew about the design flaws of Mark 1 reactors long before three of them melted down at Fukushima. Among these flaws is the position of the fuel storage pools. Forty feet deep, they hang perilously over the reactor vessel, protected by nothing more than a thin metal roof. In the event of a station blackout and a sudden loss of cooling water, exposed fuel rods can easily ignite. A 2006 report submitted to the Massachusetts attorney general’s office estimated that a full-scale release of radioactivity from Pilgrim could contaminate a swath of the Northeast from Maine to New York, cause up to $488 billion in damages, and produce 24,000 latent cancers.

Spent fuel is spent only in terms of its ability to drive a turbine, not its toxicity—it is still loaded with uranium and a stew of radionuclides, including plutonium and other bad actors from the bottom of the periodic table. The fuel pool at Pilgrim held 4,114 fuel assemblies, each one comprising about 200 fuel rods. This was five times more than the pool was designed to hold. Dense packing of fuel pools is common practice at other reactors in the United States, where plants meant to last 40 years are now being licensed for 60 or even 80 years. The pools in these old reactors were intended only as temporary way stations for fuel rods that would be reprocessed in “breeder” reactors—reactors run on plutonium that would eventually be able to produce more fuel than they used.

France, England, and Japan have experimented and failed spectacularly with reprocessing nuclear fuel. Every year, the French factory at Cap de la Hague dumps more than 60 million gallons of radioactive waste into the English Channel and maintains a stockpile of more than 50 tons of reprocessed plutonium. The British factory at Windscale, which burned in 1957 in England’s worst radioactive disaster before being renamed Sellafield, leaked enough plutonium to make 20 nuclear bombs and turned the Irish Sea into the world’s most radioactive body of water. Japan’s Monju reactor operated for only four months before a sodium fire shut it down. The mixed-oxide fuel it fabricated—uranium spiked with plutonium—produced the worst and most lethal of Fukushima’s four explosions. The United States abandoned the idea of reprocessing fuel from nuclear reactors in 1974, after India used the plutonium produced from a civilian reactor to build its first atomic bomb. Today, more than 500 tons of excess plutonium is stored at reprocessing plants around the world, enough to make more than 20,000 nuclear weapons.

Now that the spent fuel pool at Pilgrim has been emptied, the water needs to be disposed of. Fuel pool water is filled with radionuclides, but it is an odd feature of how casually these matters are handled that no one knows what is in the water. Dumping radioactive material is specifically carved out of the purview of the Environmental Protection Agency. Neither is it regulated by state or federal health officials. It is controlled solely by the NRC’s five political appointees, who historically have worked more as nuclear boosters than as regulators. For the NRC, “overboarding” water from nuclear fuel pools is standard practice, assuming one has the appropriate license, and Holtec does.

Dumping radioactive waste into the ocean started in 1945. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the last time it looked, in 1993, found that 200,000 tons of radioactive waste had been thrown into the world’s seas. As recently as last December, a container ship loaded with “padlocks,” but actually containing high-level nuclear waste from India—destination unknown—was seized by Kenyan health officials off the east coast of Africa. Dumping solid waste became less common after the practice was banned in 1993 by the London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution, but radioactive water continues to flow unabated. No matter how assiduously it is filtered, scrubbed, processed, or treated, it remains contaminated. One of these contaminants, in particular, is impossible to remove: tritium, which bonds with hydrogen to produce a radioactive form of water itself.

Officials have long maintained that the tritium released by nuclear power plants is harmless to humans. “The ocean’s solution to pollution is dilution,” Ken Buesseler, a marine chemist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, told The New York Times. Tritium dilutes in seawater, but it also bonds with organic material in the water column and on the sea floor. This organically bound tritium can enter the food chain and bioaccumulate. In other words, it can become dangerously concentrated in the fish and shellfish that we eat. Cape Cod Bay is a shallow, relatively self-contained body of water, with pollutants likely to settle to the bottom. “Until we have an accounting of what different radioactive elements will be released and their concentrations,” Buesseler told The Provincetown Independent, “the impact of one million gallons is impossible to evaluate.”

A radioactive isotope of hydrogen, tritium (hydrogen-3) is a primary component in nuclear weapons. It is the H in H-bombs, and the United States is currently spending more than a trillion dollars to replenish the tritium in its nuclear warheads and rebuild its stockpile of nuclear weapons. Old and unreliable, all of America’s military reactors have broken down irreparably, so the military gets the tritium it needs from civilian reactors owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority. The same was true in the Soviet Union, where three of Chernobyl’s four reactors produced plutonium and tritium for nuclear weapons. (Ironically, it was the civilian reactor that blew up.)

The debate rages about allowable levels of contamination, but the fishermen and oystermen around the bay say their livelihood is at risk from even the perception that Cape Cod’s waters are radioactive.

The safe level of tritium in drinking water—measured in becquerels, or the number of nuclear disintegrations per second—varies widely by country and jurisdiction. In the United States, it stands at 740 becquerels per liter, although California recommends lowering this to 15. The European Union allows up to 100 becquerels per liter. In Canada, after spills from its nuclear reactors on Lake Ontario in the 1970s, the country’s Atomic Energy Control Board set the safe level of tritium in drinking water at a whopping 40,000 becquerels per liter. (It has since been reduced to 7,000.)

The press seldom looks beyond industry claims that “treated” cooling water from atomic reactors contains nothing more than tritium and that low levels of tritium are harmless to humans. But the debate about tritium often ignores far more dangerous elements. After claiming remarkable success for its “advanced” treatment facility at Fukushima, the Tokyo Electric Power Company was forced to admit in 2018 that the process had actually failed. About three-fourths of the treated water at Fukushima is still contaminated with cesium-137, strontium-90, iodine-129, cobalt-60, and other toxic radionuclides. Something similar happened at Pilgrim in 1988. A U.S. Senate hearing revealed that the shellfish, algae, and sediment near Pilgrim’s outflow canal contained cesium-137, cobalt-60, and other radioactive material. The debate rages about allowable levels of contamination, but the fishermen and oystermen around the bay say their livelihood is at risk from even the perception that Cape Cod’s waters are radioactive.

When reading press reports about the release of water from atomic reactors, one should generally substitute the word contaminated for the word treated and look at other elements beyond tritium. Nor should one be reassured that these releases are barely above background levels for radiation exposure. By this point—after thousands of aboveground nuclear tests and radioactive releases—a good portion of the world’s background radioactivity was produced by human beings.

Last December, Rep. William Keating, who represents Plymouth, received an email from the NRC informing him that Holtec would be dumping more than a million gallons of radioactive water into Cape Cod Bay, beginning as early as January 2022. No one knew exactly what was in the water. No studies would be done. No public hearings would be held. After protests from Keating and other officials, the NRC apologized for “misunderstanding” what was happening at the plant, and Holtec issued a press release promising not to dump any waste in 2022. It said nothing about what might happen the following year.

Also in December, at a Senate hearing with NRC Chairman Christopher Hanson, Massachusetts Democrat Edward Markey accused the agency of colluding with an industry “known to cut corners.” Earlier in the year, the NRC had announced that it would not review but merely acknowledge receipt of decommissioning plans drafted by private companies such as Holtec. “The NRC has decided that the best way to shield itself from criticism is to take itself out of the process,” effectively transforming the agency responsible for regulating the nuclear industry into nothing more than “a glorified filing cabinet,” Markey said.

Together, these events exposed the real nature of what is going on. Holtec can do whatever it wants with Pilgrim’s contaminated water without fear of interference from the NRC. State inspectors can comb the Pilgrim site for traces of asbestos or lead paint, but thanks to the regulatory gap that overlooks radioactivity as a pollutant or threat to public health, they can do no more than that. The NRC is “an agency overwhelmed by the industry it is supposed to regulate and a political system determined to keep it that way,” wrote Gregory Jaczko, the NRC’s former chairman, in Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator, published in 2019, before concluding that “nuclear power is a failed technology.”

In January, Markey and congressional colleagues, including Keating and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, wrote to Holtec demanding that they consider other options, including shipping Pilgrim’s radioactive water to a site in Idaho that is used to store waste from the Rocky Flats nuclear bomb factory. Vermont, they noted, had already done something similar when it prevented the company that owns the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant from dumping two million gallons of radioactive water into the Connecticut River. Markey and his colleagues suggested the same thing be done with Pilgrim’s nuclear waste in order to protect “one of the most important areas of marine life and economy in the United States.”

Like Henry David Thoreau, their Massachusetts forebear who loved Cape Cod and walked its length three times, many people are upset by the prospect of environmental damage to the bay. They might even follow Thoreau’s example and engage in civil disobedience. (Opposing the U.S. invasion of Mexico, Thoreau spent a night in jail for refusing to pay his taxes.) “Dump in our bay, no way!” chanted hundreds of protesters who gathered in April on Plymouth’s Town Wharf. But as long as standard industry practices remain unchanged, what’s to stop anyone from doing just that?

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Thomas A. Bass, a professor of English and journalism at SUNY Albany, is the author of The Eudaemonic Pie and The Spy Who Loved Us. His eighth book, Return to Fukushima, will be published in the spring.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up