The beginning of a new era as Oyster Creek begins decommissioning process

The Oyster Creek Nuclear Plant has been a fixture in Lacey Township for nearly five decades. The plant went online in 1969 and produced enough energy for 600,000 homes in New Jersey. But that all came to an end in the fall of 2018 when Oyster Creek went offline, permanently.

“We did shut down in September. It’s a bit surreal. Me being here 35 years, it’s became a home, if you will. We became a family. I spent more time here than I did really at home. So us shutting down, it was emotional, but it’s the right time. It’s ready for us to move into the next chapter,” said Jeff Dostal from Exelon.

Oyster Creek’s owner Exelon Corporation produced a simulation nuclear reactor shutdown video for the media. Cameras aren’t allowed inside the nuclear facility. Exelon also created a display, called the Hall of Memories, to capture Oyster Creek’s unique place in history as the nation’s longest operating commercial nuclear plant.

Dostal gave a tour and showed photos of Oyster Creek’s construction in the mid 1960s, along with a few quirky keepsakes.

“This is a comic book that Oyster Creek was actually depicted in. The Avengers utilized the power from Oyster Creek in helping the super heroes save the day,” he said.

Dostal’s day-to-day work is supervising the decommissioning process now underway at Oyster Creek. It’s a unique job. Very few nuclear plants in the United States have ever been retired. According to the federal government, as of 2017 only 10 commercial nuclear reactors in the United States have been successfully decommissioned. There’s another 20 U.S. reactors now in different stages of the decommissioning process.

Retiring a plant is a a multi-step process that includes: powering down the reactor, removing and cooling the spent fuel, and then loading that fuel into steel-reinforced concrete for what’s known as dry storage.

“Dry storage is a state where it is a passive system. You don’t need electricity, you don’t need water to cool the fuel, it is air cooled. It is a lower level state such that it is inherently safe, if you will. People don’t really understand that, they have concerns about dry storage. And if you look in the industry about how any dry storage states are out there, you’ll see that they are safe, they have been safe. They’ve been out there for years,” Dostal said.

Over the years, various companies have produced videos to prove that stored nuclear waste is safe during transit, even in the event of an accident. Still, it’s a complicated process, and now a new owner could be taking control of Oyster Creek.

Last summer, Exelon agreed to sell the plant to Camden-based Holtec. That sale must be approved by regulators, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

If the sale goes through, Holtec would take over the decommissioning of Oyster Creek, which would also include radiation monitoring, clean up and and restoration of the site. Holtec is seeking approval to ship nuclear waste from New Jersey to a yet-to-be approved storage facility in New Mexico.

“I’m not aware of us denying an application in the past, however I think the thing to consider is that the license application review we do is very comprehensive,” said Nuclear Regulatory Commission administrator Ray Lorson.

Lacey Township has some concerns about the decommission timeline, which Holtec says will take eight years, well ahead of the 60 year timeline allowed by the NRC. So Lacey Township has requested that the NRC hold a public hearing on the sale.

“The proposed major concern is that the decommissioning is done in a safe and efficient manor.” said Lacey Township Business Administrator Veronica Laureigh. “And of course the length of time they’re looking to go for, an 8-year decommissioning process, which is good for us in the sense that it will get us to redevelop the site faster, but at the same time at the same time we want to make sure it’s safe for the community and obviously the environment.”

Lacey Township also wants to make sure its taxpayers would not be on the hook if the decommissioning costs exceed the amount set aside in a special fund for that purpose. Lacey also raised concerns about Hotlec’s plans to work with SNC-Lavalin, a company that had previously been charged with corruption by Canadian authorities.

In their letter of response submitted to the NRC in early December, both attorneys for Exelon and Holtc stated, ” … there is no shortfall in funding, much less a significant shortfall.”

Regarding SNC Lavalin, the attorney stated the township, ” … makes no effort to demonstrate how concerns regarding the ‘trustworthiness’ of SNC-Lavalin fall within the scope of this license transfer proceeding.”

The company attorney’s argued that the NRC should deny Lacey’s request for a hearing, along with a separate request made by the Sierra Club.

The NRC has made no decision yet on whether to hold a public hearing.

For Lacey Township, the decommissioning of Oyster Creek also creates a financial challenge. In 2017, the plant’s owner paid Lacey $2.5 million in property taxes, and the township receives $11.1 million in annual energy tax receipts. Exelon also makes generous donations to various community organizations. Lacey Township is already holding conversations with companies interested in the Oyster Creek site once restoration is completed, including other energy companies, as it seeks to replace that tax revenue.

In the meantime, decommissioning continues at Oyster Creek. Exelon has retained 300 workers, about half of the previous workforce, for the decommissioning process. Holtec has said it would offer jobs to the decommissioning employees.

Dostal says the work going on now includes the same focus on safety and efficiency that was in place when the plant was producing electricity.

“We get audited, we get inspected by the NRC. They make sure that we meet those regulations and those commitments. We’ve done a good job of that,” he said.

The NRC agrees. In mid-December the agency completed its review of post-shutdown decommissioning activities at Oyster Creek and declared the power plant is meeting its regulatory requirements.

As for the sale of Oyster Creek to Holtec, a decision on that isn’t expected until later in 2019.

So for now, the final chapter in Oyster Creek’s very long history has yet to be written.

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