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A Contaminated Ocean Knows No Borders: Protecting the Cape Cod Bay

Did you know that nearly twenty percent of all electricity used in the United States is generated in nuclear power plants? Nuclear power plants create energy and heat which through a long process are eventually converted to electricity, which is then distributed to people within the region! However, sometimes these nuclear power plants are "decommissioned". Decommissioning is the process by which nuclear power plants are retired from working, decontaminated, and released for other use.

On May 31st, 2019, a nuclear power plant called “Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station” was permanently closed after providing electricity to the region of Cape Cod, Massachusetts for nearly fifty years. After being shut down, it was purchased by an energy company called Holtec International, which allowed for Pilgrim to enter instant decommissioning decades sooner than previously anticipated. In the several years since the closing of this power plant, Holtec has successfully decommissioned Pilgrim and is now looking for a way to dispose of the radioactive water that was used to cool the now disabled heat-generating radioactive cores. This radioactive water must go somewhere, which prompted Holtec International to release a statement last year concerning how to get rid of this waste. One public suggestion by the company was the option of dumping a million gallons of this radioactive water into the Cape Cod Bay.

This public comment outraged many in the surrounding region, and led to the Mashpee Select Board approving a letter stating its opposition to the potential discharge of this radioactive water into the bay. Seth Pickering, in a Cape Cod Times article, pointed out that although the discharge of pollutants regulated under the Clean Water Act is not authorized under the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), radioactivity is not listed as a pollutant under the NPDES. It is instead regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In the same article, Pine duBois, the vice chair of the citizens decommissioning panel states, “it’s not permitted by the EPA, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allows it.” Due to the backlash that Holtec received from their public statement, they pushed off the plans to get rid of the radioactive water until 2022.

Well, now 2022 is here. It is important to note that “overboarding,” the release of radioactive water into surrounding waters from power plants, is a fairly common practice in the nuclear industry. The bottom line is, the decision to release radioactive water into surrounding bodies of water is not the most realistic long-term solution. We do not know exactly what the effects will be on both marine-life and human-life, given the large amount of water set to be released. Between the potential damage of the DNA of marine species, contamination of food chains (especially fisheries), and human disease triggered by long-term exposure to radioactive materials, the consequences are too great to count.

According to the Cape Cod Times, “After all, we are what we eat; our health as a global community depends on the health of the environment, and a contaminated ocean knows no geographical or political borders.” Outlined on their website, Holtec International states that one of their main goals for the decommissioning of Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station is “protecting the environment now and for future generations.” The problem is that although Pilgrim has been successfully and safely decommissioned, the release of a million gallons of radioactive water into the Cape Cod Bay is by no means environmentally friendly and can lead to grave consequences for generations to come.

By researching and becoming more familiar with the decommissioning process and attending citizens advisory board meetings, you can have a direct impact on the decision making that has a great possibility to cause detrimental effects on the environment around us. When we take action together, we can make a difference.


Drysdale, B. S. (2022, January 26). Mashpee Select Board Opposes Discharge Of Radioactive Water Into Cape Cod Bay. CapeNews.Net.

Holtec International. (2022, January 28). Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station Decommissioning.

Jha, A. (2021, April 30). Nuclear power: how might radioactive waste water affect the environment? The Conversation.

Which Environment Makes Cancer? (2018). Open Access Text.

Fraser, D. C. C. T. (2021, November 25). Pilgrim nuclear plant may release 1M gallons of radioactive water into the bay. What we know. Cape Cod Times.

Nuclear Power Plants. (2022, February 9). US EPA.

Decommissioning Nuclear Power Plants. (2016, August 1). Nuclear Energy Institute.

Holtec International. (2020, April 16). Corporate Overview.

Culhane, G. (2022, January 26). Mashpee Opposes Discharge of Radioactive Water into Cape Cod Bay. CapeCod.Com.


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