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In Wake of Japanese Nuclear Disaster, NRC Questioned About Oyster Creek Relicensing

Letter from U.S. Court of Appeals to federal agency seen as a significant step by environmentalists.

In an unusual development, the U.S. Court of Appeals has sent a letter to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) asking the agency to respond to what impact, if any, the earthquake and tsunami that devastated a nuclear plant in Japan will have on the plans to relicense the Oyster Creek nuclear unit in Lacey Township.

The one-paragraph letter from the federal court hearing an appeal of the agency’s granting Oyster Creek a new 20-year license was welcomed as a significant step by those who are battling to shutter the plant, the nation’s oldest-running commercial nuclear station.

"What happened in Japan is a giant wakeup call for 40-year-old plants with a design which we no longer use," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. The design of Oyster Creek is the same as the Fukushima Daiichi plant, Tittel noted.

Oyster Creek is now scheduled to shut down by the end of 2019, under an agreement reached between the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Exelon, the owner of the facility, which has been in operation since 1969. Some critics of the plant, however, want it closed sooner, and now believe their argument is bolstered by the disaster in Japan.

The plant in Japan experienced a near meltdown after an earthquake knocked out power at the plant and the tsunami wrecked a backup system, leaving operators unable to cool down the nuclear reactors. Workers at the plant were still struggling to restore power yesterday, even as they coped with the overheating of spent fuel rods nearby.

"Quite frankly, that tsunami will have a long-ranging impact for the U.S.’s nuclear industry," said Paul Patterson, an energy analyst at Glenrock Associates in New York City.

Kevin Pflug, an attorney for the Eastern Environmental Law Clinic, which is representing several environmental groups appealing the relicensing decision, said he believes the letter will end up helping their appeal. "They [the NRC] will now have to take a harder look at the safety of the reactor," said Pflug, who notes the core is less than half as thick when the plant originally started.

David Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, another plaintiff, also welcomed the letter. "Here we have three judges from the Court of Appeals in Philadelphia agreeing with our basic contention: the NRC did not do due diligence in the relicensing review."

In response to the problems in Japan, Bill Borchardt, executive director of the NRC, gave the agency's commissioners a briefing on the issue on Monday, according to Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the agency. The NRC plans a quick review of the accident and disaster in 30 days to determine if any immediate action is necessary, Sheehan said. Within 90 days, the staff will conduct a more extensive review to look for possible implications resulting from Japan, he said.

"This is unusual territory -- given what has happened in Japan," Sheehan said. As for the Court of Appeals letter, Sheehan said the agency just received it Monday and will prepare a response from its Office of General Counsel. The court asked the response be received by April 4, according to its letter to the NRC.

Calls to Exelon were not returned, but on its website the company sought to draw a distinction between Oyster Creek and what happened in Japan. It claimed its Oyster Creek plant is more than five miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean and tsunami events are not typical on the East Coast.

In addition, Exelon said barrier islands five miles away would limit the energy of a tsunami prior to reaching the closest coastline to Oyster Creek. The company also claimed all of its nuclear plants are designed to withstand substantial earthquakes, even though none are located in earthquake zones.

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