After a months-long campaign by residents and environmentalists, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed legislation to ban the deactivated nuclear power plant from discharging treated waste into the river nearby. But what happens now with the site’s 1 million gallons of radioactive water is uncertain, and advocates are pressing the state to step in further.
After a months-long campaign by residents and environmentalists, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed legislation in August to ban the discharge of wastewater from Indian Point—the shuttered nuclear power plant in the Hudson Valley—into the river nearby.
But what happens now to the more than 1 million gallons of radioactive water stored at the facility is uncertain, and advocates are pressing local officials to step in further. Several groups are calling for a “state-led” waste management plan for the site, and asking Albany to study what impact Indian Point may have had on the nearby ecosystem during its decades in operation.
A spokesperson for Holtec International, which purchased the plant when it shut down in 2021 and is now decommissioning the facility, said the company is currently “evaluating the impact” of the legislative ban on its plans.
“We firmly believe that this legislation is preempted by federal law and that the discharge of monitored, processed, and treated water would not impact the environment or the health and safety of the public based upon years of scientific research,” the spokesperson said.
The debate is among several playing out worldwide over how to dispose of wastewater from now-defunct nuclear power plants. In July, Massachusetts officials issued a draft decision denying Holtec—which is also decommissioning the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in that state—from moving forward with plans to discharge into Cape Cod Bay. In Japan, controversy has brewed over the release of water from the disabled Fukushima plant into the Pacific.
Discharging treated waste from nuclear facilities into waterways, Holtec and other nuclear energy supporters point out, has been a standard practice in the sector for years. Generation Atomic, a pro-nuclear nonprofit group, called the legislation that banned the practice in the Hudson “regrettably based on misinformation and unfounded fears about radiation and nuclear energy, rather than science and facts.”
“You’d have to drink roughly 3,500 gallons to equal a dental x-ray. Knowing this, it’s clear why this water has been safely discharged for decades without issue,” the organization said in a statement last month when Gov. Hochul signed the ban.
But those who’ve fought against Holtec’s dumping plan, a groundswell that includes major environmental groups like Riverkeeper and more than two dozen towns and counties upstate, say their goal is to protect the Hudson.
“No pollution is an acceptable amount of pollution, and we’re not going to use our water bodies as industrial waste dumps anymore,” said State Sen. Pete Harckham, the main sponsor of the “Save the Hudson” bill. “Just because something was acceptable in the past—it’s not acceptable now.”
Harckham said he feels confident that the legislation would withstand a potential legal challenge. The bill was drafted around the premise that a healthy Hudson River is integral to the region’s economic viability.
“This is really about all of the dozens and dozens of municipalities that have staked their renovation on their proximity to the Hudson River,” the senator said. “We want to protect that and all the jobs associated with that.”
Environmental groups are particularly concerned with the presence of tritium in the wastewater, a radioactive element that can’t be filtered out and has been linked to an increased risk of cancer, miscarriages and birth defects. While nuclear energy supporters argue the tritium levels in the Indian Point discharge would be extremely low, critics say the sector shouldn’t be looking to local waterways for its output.
“A river is not a radioactive waste facility, nor should it be treated as a radioactive sewer,” said Gordon Edwards, who heads the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility and joined the groups opposing Holtec’s plan at virtual press conference in August. He advocated for a storage plan for the wastewater, saying it could instead be held for years in sealed containers so the tritium disintegrates over time.
“What is happening at Indian Point is really part of a global pattern. The industry wants to rid itself of the responsibility of looking after at least some of the voluminous toxic waste that it has created,” Edwards said.
While the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has oversight of radioactive waste disposal, the independent agency said the ball is now mainly in Holtec’s court in terms of what will happen next.
“Holtec will need to decide if it wants to challenge the state law, store the radioactive water on-site, ship it off-site for disposal, evaporate some of the water or a combination of these approaches. We will continue to engage the company on its plans and upcoming activities,” Spokesman Neil Sheehan told City Limits in an email.
A Holtec rep reiterated that the company is still weighing its options, noting that the discharge plan targeted by the state ban had been in the works for years.
Members of the “Stop Holtec Coalition” are pushing for the state to take the lead and engage with the public on coming up with an alternative. A rep for the governor’s office did not comment directly when asked about that request, but said Hochul is committed to “working closely with local communities who have advocated so passionately for this cause.”
“The Hudson River is one of New York’s landmark natural treasures, and it’s critical we stand together to protect it for generations to come,” the governor said in a statement.