When the Christie administration announced last week the Oyster Creek nuclear facility would shut down in nine years, many longtime opponents of the plant cheered. But others are troubled by details in the administrative consent order (ACO) signed by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Exelon, the owner of the plant.
In the order, the DEP said cooling towers are not the best control technology for dealing with massive fish kills at the plant. Conservationists say that determination may undermine efforts to force other power plants in New Jersey to install cooling towers to minimize damage to marine environments.
"It’s a bad sign the DEP does not consider cooling towers to be the best available technology," said Dena Mottola Jaborska, executive director of Environment New Jersey.
Bill Wolfe, director of the New Jersey chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, agrees. "The technical and regulatory concession in the ACO gives away the store as far as New Jersey ever requiring cooling towers again," Wolfe said.
The Oyster Creek plant, the nation’s oldest commercial nuclear power station, which opened in 1969, kills millions of clam and crab larvae by sucking in more than a billion gallons of water each day from the bay, a practice common in the power industry.
In the last days of the Corzine administration, a draft water permit was issued for Oyster Creek that ordered Exelon to build cooling towers to minimize the impact on aquatic life. Exelon, however, said it would close the plant rather than build the cooling towers, which it said could cost $800 million.
In the latest administrative consent order, the state agency decided not to require cooling towers given Exelon’s commitment to close the plant no later than December 31, 2019, and given the length of time it would take to retrofit the facility and "its limited life span" after the installation was complete.
The move angered Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, who said the state had no authority to factor how long the plant is to remain open into its consideration of what is the best available technology. "For 10 years, they get to pollute the bay and do whatever they want," said Tittel, referring to the consent order.
Not requiring the cooling towers will undercut arguments to force other power plants, such as two of Public Service Enterprise Group’s nuclear units in South Jersey, to use the technology to minimize harm to the marine environment in Delaware Bay, Tittel said. Ironically, one of those units at one time had been ordered to install cooling towers, but PSEG later convinced the state that a massive wetlands restoration would be more effective.
The issue is complicated because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is working on rules to lessen the impact of power plants withdrawing vast quantities of water from bays and rivers. It is expected the rules will declare cooling towers the best available technology. If that determination is made, it should trump whatever precedent is established by the Oyster Creek consent order, Jaborska said.
Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, concurred. EPA’s pending rule would govern future decisions by the state more than any determination made in the Oyster Creek case, Dillingham said.
Larry Hajna, a spokesman for DEP, said the administrative consent order between the agency and Exelon was not intended to have ramifications beyond Oyster Creek, a stance echoed by David Pringle, campaign director for the New Jersey Environmental Federation.
"The consent order is specific to Oyster Creek," Pringle said when asked about the decision not to enforce the cooling tower installation. "Oyster Creek shutting down is the best thing for Barnegat Bay, not cooling towers."
Wolfe was not so certain. "It totally lacks legal and scientific integrity," he said of the consent order. "If they couldn’t do it here, where the impact is so obvious, they are never going to be able to require it."