New Jersey’s Ticking Time Bomb

Today, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced that it is planning on performing a special inspection of the Oyster Creek nuclear plant in Lacey Township, an area that was severely impacted by Hurricane Sandy. This plant is one of the oldest in the country and its design is essentially the same as the Fukushima reactors that resulted in a long-lasting calamity in Japan.

Oyster Creek is operated by a for-profit company, Exelon, and while the NRC imposes (hopefully) strict safety standards, the age of the plant indicates that maintenance and safety costs will be rising. The state has indicated that the plant will be decommissioned in 2019, but since the operating license is issued by the Federal government, there are some, including the Sierra Club’s Jeff Tittel, who look at that date with some doubt.

According to the NRC, we may have dodged a Fukushima-type bullet during the hurricane:

“Because the reactor was out of service at the time of the storm for a previously scheduled refueling and maintenance outage, plant operators did not have to contend with the possibility of a reactor shutdown as Sandy passed through the area. There were no immediate safety concerns,” Region I Administrator Bill Dean said. “Nevertheless, there are certain observations involving procedures and on-site activities that surfaced during the event warranting a closer look. This Special Inspection will focus on those areas to gain a better understanding of how the intake water level information was monitored and communicated during the event.”

We may not be so lucky the next time a global-warming-strengthened storm hits the Jersey Shore. Exelon has refused to build cooling towers for the plant, and according to Jeff Tittel, “Without cooling towers, the plants depend on continuous withdrawals from waterways to cool spent fuel, making the plant more vulnerable during power outages and to disruption of their water intake systems.”

While Exelon is not required to announce its decommissioning and environmental cleanup plan until two years before closure, it’s time to start working to get this ticking time bomb shut down safely. The Governor should form an advisory council now, consisting of area residents, environmentalists, and decontamination experts as well as energy experts to develop a plan and apply pressure to the NRC to ensure a safe and quick decommissioning of the plant and to boost clean energy alternatives.

Comments (4)

  1. Rosi Efthim

    I’d like to see area residents have their stake in what happens there recognized and acknowledged by the Governor, by the company and by the NRC. Good idea, Deciminyan.  

  2. William Weber (WjcW)

    Exelon has refused to build cooling towers for the plant, and according to Jeff Tittel, “Without cooling towers, the plants depend on continuous withdrawals from waterways to cool spent fuel, making the plant more vulnerable during power outages and to disruption of their water intake systems.”

    To hear Jeff explain how the water gets to the top of the cooling tower without electricty.

    I’d submit it is far less power intensive to pump water from the ocean or river into the plant in an open loop system than to continuously pump water to the tops of the cooling towers in the closed loop system. The towers in question may even require fans to operate, I’m not entirely sure if convection gets the job done.

    Certainly, the cooling towers are preferable from the pollutant standpoint (hot water), but from a power perspective, I can’t see how anyone can consider them more efficient.

  3. deciminyan (Post author)

    For Immediate Release

    November 13, 2012

    Contact Jeff Tittel, 609-558-9100

    The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has announced they want to inspect the Oyster Creek Nuclear Plant and do a report on the plant’s safety. However this inspection and report is not what Oyster Creek Plant needs instead they need to install cooling towers or shut down the plant permanently. Following Hurricane Sandy Oyster Creek was in a state of alert due to rising water levels and outages of parts of its warning system and the plant itself.  These are safety problems that continue to not be addressed and a key reason why this power plant needs to be closed.

    “We were lucky that the Hurricane Sandy wasn’t worse or there wasn’t a bigger problem at the plant. We do not need another study of Oyster Creek Nuclear Plant what we need is to make to make the plant safer. If the plant had cooling towers it would not have suffered the problems it did from the storm or had the alert. However, the only real way to make Oyster Creek safer is to close it down,” said Jeff Tittel,Director of NJ Sierra Club. “The NRC instead of being a regulator has been a cheerleader for the industry. If they were concerned about safety they would not give the oldest plant in the nation a 20 year license. This is the 6th incident at the plant since it had been relicensed.”

    The Sierra Club has long questioned the safety of Oyster Creek in Forked River and has urged the panel to recommend the plant be closed down.  Extreme weather events at Oyster Creek could impact the facility’s corroded pipes that leak radioactive tritium or the corroding drywall liner of the reactor containment vessel.  The wall is currently one-half as thick as when the plant opened in the late 1960s.

    Luckily the Oyster Creek was being refueled and was not in full operation when Hurricane Sandy hit, otherwise the impacts could have been much worse.  The impacts from Hurricane Sandy would have been lessened if the plant had a closed loop system.  This is what we have said all along that the safety issues at the plant; with storm surges and flooding they should be required to have cooling towers. Without cooling towers, Oyster Creek depends on continuous withdrawals from waterways to cool spent fuel, making the plant more vulnerable during power outages and to disruption of their water intake systems.  There was flooding on site and some of the backup systems failed as a result. We knew about the power outage issues before and called for more redundancies in the system and for the elevation of those systems.  We need this plant closed to prevent a major disaster from occurring at the Shore.

    The design of Oyster Creek is the same as the Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1, a GE Mark I BWR.  Even a moderate hurricane or flooding at Oyster Creek could impact the above ground spent fuel rod storage system.  The Japanese reactor had a cement dome over the containment vessel and Oyster Creek does not, possibly making it more at risk if a build up of hydrogen occurs.

    “This plant has the same design as Fukushima. The plant is in a coastal area without cooling towers and is vulnerable to storm surges and flooding.  In some ways with all the terrible things that have happened with this storm, not having a bigger problem at Oyster Creek was good news amid all the bad, but does not mean next time it will not be worse,” said Jeff Tittel.

    In the past we have also raised concerns about the plant’s warning system and excavation procedures and routes during an emergency. Ocean County’s population doubles on a summer weekend.   There is close to 1 million people in a 12-13 mile radius of the power plant.  It is hard enough to get home from a day at the beach, let alone when you have to evacuate people during an emergency.  

    Without cooling towers Oyster Creek impacts the ecology of the Barnegat Bay as well.  The plant kills billions of fish larva, fish eggs, and a variety of aquatic species from Bay anchovies to glass shrimp.  The pumps act as a giant vacuum, sucking up and destroying everything in its reach.  The biggest problem is the superheated water entering the Bay.  Discharge waters measured hundreds of yards away from the discharge point reach 97 degrees, the equivalent of a hot tub, four feet below the surface. This discharge does not include the tritium that is discharged into groundwater. The dilution system for the discharge does not do an adequate job in dropping the temperature of the water or diluting pollutants before it enters the Bay.

    “We believe that this plant should be closed.  It is the oldest plant in the nation and has serious problems from tritium leaks to corrosion of dry wall liner.  It is in a densely populated area and the evacuation plan will not work.  The plant is subject to flooding and storm surges.  This is the wrong plant in the wrong place and needs to be closed,” said Jeff Tittel.

  4. deciminyan (Post author)

    The bottom line is that no form of energy generation is 100% safe. People will die in coal mines. Gas plants explode. I suppose that there are even industrial accidents at clean energy generation facilities. But the impact of these accidents, as tragic as they are, are relatively short term and localized. Even the mess from the Exxon Valdez will be cleaned up in a few more decades. But an accident in a nuclear plant like Chernobyl or Fukushima affects people around the world and makes ground zero permanently uninhabitable. We need to eliminate these ticking time bombs quickly and efficiently.

    When Fukushima happened, the US government recommended total evacuation within a 50 mile radius. Can you imagine the impossibility of an evacuation of a 50 mile radius of Salem and Oyster Creek plants?


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