Trevor Lloyd-Evans certainly looks like a naturalist. On a walk through the woods in Plymouth, he sports a white beard, thick wool sweater and a pair of binoculars around his neck. The ornithologist with the Manomet Center‘s Landbird Conservation Program is demonstrating his calling, too, pointing out cardinals, blue jays and Carolina wrens and imitating their unique chirps.
After navigating around mud puddles and swatting his way through thorny brambles, he comes out on a bluff overlooking Cape Cod Bay. He notes the flock of red-breasted mergansers floating in the water and the herring gulls flying overhead.
“Birds are amazing indicators of environmental change,” he says. “There’s a reason we talk about the canary in the coal mine.”
He can’t see it here, but the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station is only a few hundred yards away. You can hear its low mechanical hum.
Testing For Radioactivity
Like all nuclear power plants, Pilgrim releases small amounts of radioactive gases and liquids as part of its normal operations. These emissions are controlled by the plant, and monitored by federal and state regulators to protect public health.
Radiation occurs naturally all around us; we’re exposed to it from sunlight, soil and the air we breathe. In the mid-1970s, scientists from the Manomet Center and Boston University wanted to see if they could detect heightened levels of radiation in wildlife near the plant.
Between 1972 and 1975, Lloyd-Evans’ team caught birds near Pilgrim and at a control site about 13 miles away. They brought them back to the center, banded them with Fish and Wildlife tags so they could be tracked, and put them into a radiation detection machine called a scintillator.
“It looks like an oven that is about 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet, and is absolutely surrounded by lead,” Lloyd-Evans says. “And inside are crystals that are picking up the low-level isotopes.”
The animals spent a maximum of 20 minutes inside of the machine. Then they were released, unharmed.
After four years and thousands of birds — many of which were caught and measured multiple times — the team had its answer: Birds near the plant did not display higher levels of radiation than those at the control site.
There were only two times when birds showed slightly elevated levels of radiation. The first was in 1972, a few weeks after China tested an atmospheric nuclear bomb — the birds near the control site displayed this, too — and the second was in 1974, when plant workers at Pilgrim opened the reactor to replace fuel rods.
Lloyd-Evans recalls officials at Pilgrim, which Boston Edison owned at the time, being happy with the results. But not everyone feels good about them.
“Just admitting that they were responsible for contaminating one bird with their refueling event, that’s a concern,” says Meg Sheehan, an environmental lawyer. Sheehan grew up in Plymouth and has been involved in litigation against the plant for decades.
“And that was in the 1970s — where are the rest of the studies?” she adds.
There’s not much way in the way of independent research, says Dave Lochbaum, a retired nuclear power expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Most of what we know about radiation and the environment at Pilgrim comes from the plant itself.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requires all power plants to monitor radiation on their physical property and in the surrounding area, and then submit annual reports. (In Massachusetts, state regulators receive copies as well.)
“As part of this evaluation, the inspectors will scrutinize the plant’s yearly effluent report to determine if the company is appropriately sampling for [radiation]. And they will check on reported groundwater monitoring data,” NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan writes in an email. “All releases must fall within conservatively set federal limits.” (An effluent report documents what the plant emits.)
Entergy, the plant’s current owner, tracks radiation in a few ways. Small radiation detection devices called thermoluminescent dosimeters (TLDs) measure airborne radiation. There are 27 on the plant property and another 86 in areas nearby.
According to Entergy’s recent monitoring reports, there’s no significant increase in airborne radiation around the plant, and no signs of Pilgrim-related radioactivity beyond property lines. It’s a little more complicated when it comes to water.
To test for radioactivity in water, Entergy has installed 23 monitoring wells to measure groundwater. They also sample surface water from three separate locations.
Since 2007, Entergy has been monitoring groundwater at Pilgrim for tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen. Tritium is colorless and odorless. It can bond with oxygen to create “tritiated,” or radioactive, water. Tritium occurs naturally, but is also a byproduct of nuclear power production. Drinking it is certainly not good for you, but experts dispute just how dangerous it is.
According to the NRC, of the “65 locations in the United States where commercial nuclear power plants are or have been recently operating … 46 of these sites have had leaks or spills that involved tritium.”
Entergy’s reports often show elevated levels of tritium in some of its monitoring wells. The levels have exceeded federal drinking water standards at least twice, Entergy’s Pat O’Brien confirms. Though to be clear, no one is drinking this water.
“Tritium in the groundwater is contained in one area of the property and is well within the property boundaries,” says Jana Ferguson, director of the Bureau of Environmental Health at the state Department of Public Health. She also says the nearest municipal well is more than two miles away and “unlikely to be impacted.”
Overall, Entergy’s reports offer little reason to worry about radiation from Pilgrim. But with the plant closing down, some citizens are concerned about what might turn up during decommissioning.
“You don’t know what you don’t know,” says Sean Mullin, who lives in Plymouth and is chairman of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel (NDCAP), a state panel advising the Legislature and governor about Pilgrim’s shutdown.
“It’s no different than doing a major house renovation or any other project,” he says. “Once you get in behind the walls, [you] see other problems.”
Mullin’s worried Pilgrim could end up like Connecticut Yankee, which cost much more to decommission than anticipated because workers found unexpected radiological contamination on the site.
As part of the decommissioning process, Pilgrim’s owner will do a comprehensive examination of the site for radioactive and non-radioactive contaminants. Federal regulators will oversee this work and do an independent site survey at the end of the decommissioning process.
(Entergy wants to sell the Pilgrim plant to Holtec International, which is positioning itself as a leader in nuclear decommissioning. If the sale goes through, Holtec will complete this site assessment within a few years. If the sale doesn’t go through, Entergy spokesman O’Brien says there’s no schedule for the assessment to occur.)
There’s debate about how much radiation can be left behind on the land — the federal government sets one standard, but some locals think the levels should be significantly lower. But the ultimate goal is a piece of land that can be used for “unrestricted use” — or, in other words, almost anything.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.