Salem Nuclear Power Plants Sail Through Relicensing Process

Proponents argue that New Jersey needs more nuclear to power homes and businesses

The federal government yesterday approved a 20-year extension of the operating licenses for the two Salem nuclear power plants in Lower Alloways Creek Township in South Jersey.

The extension from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was not unexpected, since the its staff had signed off on the extension earlier this month and the regulatory agency has never failed to approve a relicensing request.

The two Salem units each generate approximately 1,175 megawatts. With the shutdown of the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant in eight years, the state would face critical problems supplying consumers and businesses with the energy they need to power their homes and businesses, according to proponents of nuclear energy.

A Critical Response

But the decision drew criticism from some environmentalists who argued the relicensing should have been delayed due to the events in Japan, where a nuclear plant suffered a partial meltdown after an earthquake and tsunami.

Still, there was hardly the opposition to the plants’ relicensing as occurred during the relicensing of Oyster Creek, which was granted an extension but will shut down by the end of 2019, under an agreement with the Christie administration.

The two Salem units are located next to the Hope Creek nuclear unit. The three plants, which produce enough electricity to power about 3 million homes each day, employ 1,500 workers, making them the largest employer in Salem County.

In approving the license renewal, the NRC said after careful review of safety systems and specifications, there were no safety concerns that would preclude granting the extension.

PSEG Nuclear, which owns 57 percent of the two Salem units, noted many members of the public supported the license renewal. Exelon owns the remaining interest in the plants.

“The license renewal of Salem is part of our ongoing commitment to provide safe, reliable energy to New Jersey and the region,” said Tom Joyce, president and chief nuclear officer of PSEG Nuclear.

Safety Concerns

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, expressed disappointment in the decision.
“The NRC believes in license first, inspect and regulate later. They have it backward,” Tittel said. “We believe outside independent experts need to review the plants and their different design features to ensure safety.”

In the relicensing process, the NRC failed to address sizable tritium leaks causing contamination of groundwater near the plant, Tittel said. He also argued that the Salem plant is old, saying the federal agency failed to look at metal fatigue and other issues that come up as these facilities age.

The NRC also is expected to announce a decision in the next few weeks on the Hope Creek nuclear unit. In addition, PSEG Nuclear has filed an early site permit to build a fourth nuclear unit at the 740-acre facility. Although it has yet to decide whether to proceed with the project, a decision on its permit is expected from the federal agency in 2013, according to PSEG officials.

A recently released draft Energy Master Plan suggests that New Jersey will need to explore the option of building additional nuclear power plants to meet the state’s energy needs and its goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Many industry experts, however, say new nuclear plants will likely not be developed anytime soon in the U.S. because of the concerns raised by the nuclear events in Japan.