Two things happened recently which are related, but not in a way you might suspect.
First, Congressman Andy Kim held a town hall meeting to discuss the decommissioning and clean up of the Oyster Creek nuclear plant in Lacey Township.
Second, I watched the HBO miniseries on the Chernobyl disaster. That tragedy was inevitable because of cutting corners in construction combined with mismanagement in the reactor’s operation.
While it is true that both dealt with issues surrounding the environmental disasters that can be inherent in generating electricity from nuclear fission, that’s not what I’m emphasizing in this article. There are certainly differences – the reactor at Chernobyl was flawed in its design and the accident occurred during its operation. Oyster Creek is closed, and the issues now surround site remediation and safe removal of highly radioactive detritus.
But what Chernobyl and Oyster Creek potentially have in common are management practices that emphasize fealty to schedules and cost reduction rather than the general safety of the public.
The cleanup of the Oyster Creek site is important not just for the residents in the surrounding area, but for the nation as a whole. The plant is among the oldest in the nation, the first to be decommissioned, and there’s not a lot of experience in this country with the retirement of commercial nukes.
Chernobyl’s lesson is that when you eliminate or ignore scientists and engineers from the decision-making process, disaster is inevitable. This is a lesson we also learned from the Challenger disaster. When you build large systems without adequate independent oversight, you are certainly bound to encounter problems, as Boeing is experiencing with its 737 Max airliner.
I’m encouraged that Congressman Kim is taking a personal interest in ensuring the safe closure of Oyster Creek. I had written about this to his predecessor, and the only response I had received was a form letter. Kim, on the other hand, is taking this seriously.
Of course, there’s only so much a single congress member can do. There is still no viable solution to the safe storage and disposal of the tons of nuclear waste that has been generated over the decades of the plant’s operation. Will it remain on site in perpetuity – a rich target for skilled terrorists? Or will it be transferred to a remote storage area over our region’s crumbling infrastructure?
Will Holtec, the company being paid for the site cleanup, put residents’ safety over profits? Its past actions indicate they are far from pristine. In the past, they were temporarily debarred from federal contract work due to false reporting at another nuclear facility. I have no doubt that their low bid on this project will be saddled with cost and schedule overruns moving forward.
One of Congressman Kim’s staffers recently posted that they will carefully monitor the progress of Holtec’s efforts. This is necessary but not sufficient. Having the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an agency that promotes nuclear power, as the watchdog is not enough. The Environmental Protection Agency, local residents, and independent scientists should also have a seat at the table.
While I don’t have any faith in the Trump administration’s desire to hold Holtec’s feet to the fire, I hope Congressman Kim and others in power will step up their game and include all stakeholders in this important effort to ensure the safety of area residents and that of generations to come.