The future of the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant ignited new debate today, as plant advocates clashed with environmentalists over the need to build cooling towers at the Lacey Township facility to reduce fish kills in Barnegat Bay.
Less than a year after the nation’s oldest commercial nuclear generating station won a 20-year renewal license from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency, public hearings opened on a draft permit issued to Exelon Generating Co. LLC, which owns the plant. The permit orders the construction of cooling towers, which according to Exelon could cost hundreds of millions of dollars and result in the plant’s closing.
“Being here today is politics at its worst,” said Lacey Township Mayor Gary Quinn at the packed hearing, which was held at the Lacey Township Municipal Building. “If they are forced to put in cooling towers, it will close. As long as the plant is safe, we back it.”
He was one of several local officials who spoke in support of the plant, some of whom argued that its closing would also affect the reliability of the region’s power grid and drive up electricity costs in the state. Others said the the plant provides well-paying jobs in a region where they are scarce—as well as desperately needed revenues to local communities.
“It has brought jobs and revenues to our towns,” said Waretown Mayor Joseph Lachaweic, a statement that elicited from the audience a yell of “and tritium,” a reference to a radioactive pollutant found leaking from the 650-megawatt facility.
Critics accused Exelon of exaggerating the cost of the cooling towers to scare the public into thinking the plant would have to close. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has deemed cooling towers the best available technology to deal with fish kills caused by the discharge of heated water back into the estuary.
“This is not going to bankrupt Exelon,” said Jeff Tittel, a lobbyist for the New Jersey Sierra Club, who claimed Exelon is making about $100 million annually off the plant, which it purchased for just $10 million. “[Barnegat Bay] is in trouble. Heated water is part of the problem. Yes, there are a lot of problems in the bay, but this is a key one.”
He and other environmentalists praised the DEP for issuing a permit requiring the cooling towers, but he urged the agency to tighten the timeline for construction from seven or more years to less.
William Donohue, assistant general counsel for Exelon, said the cooling tower decision was “arbitrary and capricious” and lacked any basis in the hearing record or in science. He also argued it ran contrary to a recent executive order issued by Gov. Chris Christie, which urged state agencies to consider the cost-benefit analysis in making such decisions.