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Oyster Creek closure should mark the end of an “error”; prompt more GE shutdowns

The nation’s oldest atomic power plant at Oyster Creek in Lacey Township, New Jersey permanently shut down on September 17, 2018 due to its poor economics and costly post-Fukushima safety retrofits. The 49-year old nuclear plant was the first General Electric Mark I boiling water reactor to go critical in the United States and the world in October 1969. GE globally marketed this reactor design and its lighter “pressure-suppression containment system” as cheaper and quicker to build than its competitors at Westinghouse, Combustion Engineering and Babcock & Wilcox. Japan was one of those countries to buy the GE design and construct its first units at Fukushima Daiichi---where multiple units would later explode and meltdown following the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami.  For the sake of public safety, Oyster Creek’s closure would well mark the beginning of the end of an “error” first identified in a 1972 controversial memo by a top reactor safety official at the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, Dr. Stephen Hanuaer. Hanauer pointed out a design flaw to colleagues, the GE containment design is volumetrically too small to contain the force of a severe accident. He warned, “I recommend that AEC adopt a policy of discouraging further use of pressure-suppression containments, and that such designs not be accepted for construction permits.” There are now 21 GE Mark I reactors still operating in the United States.

Exelon Generation’s termination of Oyster Creek’s “operating license” starts the decommissioning process. The Chicago-based nuclear utility giant has submitted an application for approval by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to sell and transfer the Oyster Creek “possession only” license to Holtec International, headquartered in Camden, NJ to take over the decommissioning of this facility. Holtec has merged with a Canadian energy corporation, SNC Lavalin, to form Comprehensive Decommissioning Incorporated (CDI) in a bid to corner a growing market to decommission more closing reactors.  The Holtec/Lavalin merger is offering a “proto-prompt” decommissioning strategy to rapidly dismantle the reactors within eight years and containerize the dangerous high-level nuclear waste in dry storage casks onsite.   

However, controversy is already stalking the corporate merger and potentially the reliability of accelerated decommissioning and nuclear waste storage. Holtec International CEO, Krishna Singh, is quoted talking down the ramping up of his Camden headquarters workforce. “‘They don’t show up to work,’ he said. ‘They can’t stand getting up in the morning and coming to work every single day. They haven’t done it, and they didn’t see their parents do it. Of course, some of them get into drugs and things. So, it’s difficult,’” said Singh. In fact, Singh’s disparaging remarks about the workforce sparked public protest at the Camden headquarters.

As reported earlier, SNC Lavalin, headquartered in Montreal, Quebec, is embroiled in a global corruption scandal and criminal charges.  SNC Lavalin and 100 of its subsidiaries have been debarred from contract work with the World Bank for ten years. Former-Lavalin executive are scheduled to go to trial in Canada later this year on fraud and bribery charges.

Exelon Generation has declined to disclose the amount for the proposed sale of Oyster Creek to Holtec International. The transaction will be decided by NRC by the end of 2019. Nearly $1 billion in the reactor's decommissioning trust fund would then be transferred to Holtec.