Cooling Towers Still A Hot Topic at Oyster Creek Nuclear Plant

Environmentalists argue that DEP draft permit will allow superheated waters to be discharged into Barnegat Bay.

Seventeen months ago, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued a draft permit requiring the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant in Lacey Township to build cooling towers to lessen the impact of the facility on aquatic life in Barnegat Bay.

The decision, coming in the last days of the Corzine administration, was based on the agency’s assessment that cooling towers, projected to cost up to $800 million, represented the best available technology to deal with problems caused by the massive water influx and discharge by the oldest commercial nuclear power plant in the nation.

That was then, however, and this is now. With the Christie administration negotiating an agreement with Exelon, the operator of the 670-megawatt facility, to close the power plant by the end of 2019, the agency has backed off its original decision. That’s one of the criticisms environmentalists raised yesterday at a hearing in Lacey Township on a draft water plant permit needed to keep Oyster Creek operating another eight years.

The draft permit details how much water the plant can pull from Barnegat Bay and under what conditions it can discharge it into the bay it uses for cooling.

Conservationists argued that the decision by the Christie administration to negotiate the closing of the plant in 2019, instead of 2029 when the its 20 year-license to operate would expire, was based more on politics than science. Ironically, plant supporters were nearly as upset. They wondered why a plant supplying 7 percent of New Jersey’s electric output was closing early, a move that would increase taxpayers’ bills, pose potential reliability problems for the region, and cost the jobs of hundreds of workers at the facility.

The DEP Defense

In opening remarks, DEP officials defended the new draft permit, saying the length of time required to design, permit and build closed-cycle cooling technology at the facility would likely be at least seven years and would involve significant costs. Due to the changed circumstances, the agency has determined that it is not appropriate to require the cooling towers, DEP officials said at the hearing.

The view was disputed by various environmental groups.

“It is transparent that politics drove this, not the science,’’ said Bill Wolfe, New Jersey director of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The only thing that has changed, Wolfe argues, is the administrative consent order, which suggests the plant is not harming the bay. (Barnegat Bay is often described as the second most eutrophoic in the nation. Nutrient overload has been blamed for choking off various marine and aquatic life.)

“The facts did not change,” Wolfe said at the hearing. “The facts did not change with respect to the technology. The facts did not change with respect to the science of the bay. The only facts that changed are the ACO and the 10-year closing.’”

The Hot Tub

Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, argued the draft permit does nothing about the superheated water flowing into Barneget Bay, causing widespread environmental impact, including water temperatures under the Route 9 bridge, just hundreds of yards from the discharge point, of 97 degrees, the equivalent of a hot tub.

More importantly, even after Oyster Creek closed, Tittel said the plant could still pull 57.6 million gallons of water a day from the bay under the draft permit, about the equivalent of a power plant twice its size.

Other conservationists also expressed concerns about the draft permit. Heather Saffert, a staff scientist at Clean Ocean Action, said the permit fails to fully address all of the environmental impact to Barnegat Bay caused by the plant. For instance, Saffert noted that 60 sea turtles have been either harmed or killed at the plant’s intake since 1993.

Exelon officials defended the administrative consent order, saying it is a mutually beneficial agreement that provides operating certainty through 2019 for Oyster Creek and ensures the continuation of a reliable supply of electricity for New Jersey during this period. “It allows the impacted stakeholders to plan ahead, and delays any immediate impact on Lacey Township,” said J. Bradley Fewell, vice president and deputy counsel of Exelon Generation Co., LLC.

By far, the audience packing the Lacey Township Municipal Building, was supportive of the plant, often erupting in applause when residents talked about the plant being a good neighbor.

“Stop coming up with all these things to shut down the plant,” argued Maria Krieger, who described herself as a longtime resident.

Business lobbyists also noted Exelon will pay $100,000 annually to fund Barnegat Bay restoration programs.