Rather than be sued by the State of New Jersey to save the Barnegat Bay by building less destructive cooling towers for the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant, Exelon Nuclear Corporation and Republican Governor Chris Christie announced a negotiated agreement to close the nation’s oldest operating nuclear power plant early by December 31, 2019. The 40-year old reactor had just received its 20-year license extension from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in April 2009 to operate until 2029.
The agreement to operate the atomic reactor for only 9 more years comes amidst a much broader and growing controversy over the antiquated, deteriorating and destructive operation of the reactor. The deal was announced in context of New Jersey’s overall plan to restore the health to an endangered and dying Barnegat Bay. Oyster Creek will continue to take 1.5 billion gallons of water per day to cool the 650 megawatt boiling water reactor and then discharge the super heated water back into the Bay until 2019. The routine operations of the reactor will continue to literally strain marine life out of the Bay into the plant cooling water intake system until closure.
Many reasons remain why Oyster Creek should be shutdown overnight, not least of which includes the continued generation of unmanaged nuclear waste and its vulnerable onsite storage with the equivalent radiation from the Hiroshima nuclear weapon blast many, many times over. But clearly the agreement represents a concession by Exelon that the twenty year license extensions can be more mirage than reality for the nuclear industry.
Aside from establishing an actual early shutdown date, albeit a distant 9 years, the one palatable measure the shutdown agreement affords is the establishment of a three member panel for the outside, independent oversight and review of the operations of a nuclear power plant in its latter days. The fact that Oyster Creek was once already slated by Jersey Central Power and Light for closure in 2006 and subsequently abandoned costly maintenance activities only to be sold to Exelon, documents the ongoing safety and environmental concerns. The review group will publicly report on its findings as well as hold annual public meetings in the countdown to shutdown. While the members of this review group are not yet known, a demonstrable measure of independence from industry will be critical to gaining the public’s confidence.
It remains to be seen if and when Exelon will submit an amendment to its 20-year operating license extension already granted by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to inside shutdown in 2019. Aside from the public handshake between Exelon and the Governor, the NRC has the authority and control over the federal operating license. To the best of our knowledge, the NRC has not received a license amendment request from Exelon to change the operating license from 2029 to 2019. Without an amendment in the federal license, federal preemption will be a lingering question and potential test. And without such a change it is difficult to place complete confidence in an agreement that doesn’t take effect for 9 more years.