PSEG Nuclear has edged closer to winning final approval to renew its operating licenses at the two Salem nuclear power plants 40 miles southwest of Philadelphia.
The Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, in a letter dated May 25, 2011, said it had finished its review of the two nuclear units and concluded that they can continue operating for another 20 years without "undue risk to the health and safety of the public."
The approval, made public yesterday, puts the two plants and a third unit, the Hope Creek nuclear generating station also at the Lower Alloways Township site, in position to win final approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) by the end of this month, according to Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the agency.
Unlike the license renewal for the fourth nuclear plant operating in New Jersey, Oyster Creek, there was little opposition to the relicensing of the three units, with no request for public hearings. 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.
The first unit at Salem began operating in 1977 and is currently licensed until 2016. The second unit came online in 1981 and is licensed until 2020. PSEG owns 57 percent of the plants; the remainder is owned by Exelon. Hope Creek went operational in 1986 and is licensed until 2026.
Beyond the three units already in place, PSEG is considering building a fourth on the 740-acre site. It probably will not file an application for some time, however, given the disaster in Japan, where there was a partial meltdown at a nuclear facility in the wake of an earthquake and tsunami.
In recommending approval of the license renewals, the advisory committee, an independent body of experts that advises the NRC on safety issues, requires the operator to implement 48 different aging management programs at the facility, including 16 programs that require more frequent inspections and monitoring of equipment.
The NRC staff and advisory committee are still reviewing the license renewal for Hope Creek. A remaining issue involves water seepage from a refueling compartment.
Based on conversations with NRC staff, PSEG Nuclear expects to have license renewals for its two Salem units by the end of the month and "hopefully by the end of July for Hope Creek," according to Joe Delmar, a spokesman for the company.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said his organization did not oppose the license renewals but had hoped the federal agency would have required cooling towers at Salem I and Salem II to reduce fish killed by the plant. The organization also sought independent safety inspections at the two units -- given what happened in Japan.
Dave Pringle, campaign director for the New Jersey Environmental Federation, said the NRC advisory committee failed to exercise due diligence by recommending approval of the license renewals. He said the Salem units have some of the same safety concerns that led to an agreement to shut down Oyster Creek in nine years.
"That’s why vigorous state oversight is needed, something the Christie administration has pledged to do, but failed to follow through on so far," Pringle said.
Others, however, said the three units in South Jersey are needed to maintain grid reliability, particularly in the wake of the decision to shut down Oyster Creek early.
"If you don’t allow Salem I and Salem II to go forward, then we are looking at facing some real serious challenges," said Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (D-Somerset).