Camden Energy Company Highlights Plans for Quicker Oyster Creek Decommissioning

By GINA G. SCALA | Aug 22, 2018

A New Jersey-based energy technology company seeking to take ownership of the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station and fasttrack its decommissioning process presented its accelerated plans to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission during a two-hour pre-license transfer submittal meeting earlier this month.

First, the company, Holtec International of Camden, and Exelon Generation, the current owner and operator of the Lacey Township-based nuclear power plant, need NRC approval of the license transfer. The companies officially submitted that application jointly Aug. 17.

Holtec’s ambitious timeline began with the July 31 purchase and sale agreement with Exelon, the Illinois-based utility giant and the license transfer application. It moves to a September due date for a revised Post-Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Report (PSDAR), to be submitted by Holtec, that would change the decommissioning strategy to immediate decommissioning from safe storage, followed by a revised spent fuel management plan and an exemption request to use nuclear decommissioning trust fund monies for spent fuel management and site restoration. All of those submittals would occur sometime early next month, according to Holtec representatives. Finally, they’re asking the NRC to make its license transfer decision no later than May 1, 2019 so they can get to work as soon as possible.

For the next month, the Oyster Creek Generating Station is operating according to its current license with the NRC; earlier this month it was operating at a lower rate due to a water leak. On Sept. 17, the nuke, which was once one of the largest employers in the county, will come offline permanently. In May, Exelon submitted its PSDAR, which called for the safe storage decommissioning strategy.

In safe storage, a facility is left intact or may be partially dismantled, but the fuel is removed from the reactor and radioactive liquids are drained from the systems and components, then processed. Radioactive decay occurs during safe storage, lowering the level of contamination and radioactivity that must be disposed of during decontamination and dismantlement.

While Exelon has been planning for safe storage, it was done to ensure an efficient shift to immediate dismantling, or  DECON, at any moment, Mike Gallagher, Exelon’s vice president of license renewal and decommissioning, said during his short presentation.

The accelerated timing of decommissioning is in the public good, according to Holtec officials. The faster the site is decontaminated and demolished, the quicker it’s remediated for repurposing, they said.

Following a DECON decommissioning strategy, the equipment, structures and areas of the facility and the site that contain radioactive materials are swiftly removed or decontaminated to a level that allows for license termination quickly after shutting down.

It wasn’t just the rapid time frame of decommissioning the roughly 780-acre site on prime real estate along Route 9 that was discussed last week, but the how. Under the expeditious timeline, Holtec plans to use a new proprietary cask design for storing still-hot spent nuclear fuel. It would cut the wait time by nearly half, according to company representatives.

Currently, dry cask storage permits spent fuel that has cooled in the spent fuel pool for at least one year to be surrounded by inert gas, generally helium, inside a container. The process begins with placing a stainless-steel canister holding the fuel rod bundles into the spent fuel pool. The fuel assemblies are lifted by a crane from metal racks at the bottom of the pool before being inserted into the canister. A lid is then placed on it.

Holtec’s timeline calls for this process to begin with still-hot spent fuel being moved sometime next year with a 2021 completion date, with fuel removal from the site by 2034 and full license termination by 2035. The Camden-based company’s plans prompted questions from NRC officials and concerns from members of the public.

“Holtec has proprietary casks. We can put some of that detail in if we need to explain why we are confident we can do that,” said Pam Cowan, Holtec Decommissioning International senior vice president and chief operating officer. “It’s proprietary.”

Doug Broaddaus of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation said the casks must be reviewed and approved before use.

It’s also worth noting that Holtec has submitted an application to build and operate Phase 1 of an interim spent fuel repository on approximately 1,040 acres of land in New Mexico. The public comment period closed earlier this month, but there is still time for a public hearing to be held on the matter. Holtec wants permission to possess and store 500 canisters of spent nuclear fuel containing up to 8,680 metric tons of uranium, which includes spent uranium-based fuel from commercial nuclear reactors, as well as a small quantity of spent mixed-oxide fuel.

If the NRC issues the requested license, Holtec expects to subsequently ask for additional amendments to the initial license to expand the storage capacity of the facility. Under its proposal, the company proposes expanding the facility in 19 subsequent phases, each for an additional 500 canisters, to be completed over the course of 20 years.

Who Would Actually

Decommission Oyster Creek?

While the initial agreement is between Exelon Generation and Holtec International, neither would directly be involved with the decommissioning of Oyster Creek should the NRC approve the license transfer request. Instead, Oyster Creek Environmental Protection LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Holtec, would own the property and control the trust fund. Holtec Decommissioning International (HDI) would hold the operating license for decommissioning.

The current plant manager at Oyster Creek is slated for a site vice president position with HDI, according to Holtec’s presentation. It’s part of the company’s readiness plan prior to approval of the license transfer. Company officials have also said they will seek to keep some of the remaining Oyster Creek personnel on site during decommissioning.

It’s expected that Comprehensive Decommissioning International (CDI), a joint venture between Holtec and SNC-Lavalin, a global professional services and project management company headquartered in Montreal, would act as general contractor for the project. Unlike Holtec, which is known around the world for its nuclear fuel management technologies, SNC-Lavalin does have decommissioning experience.

In announcing their intention to purchase Oyster Creek, Holtec officials touted CDI’s ability to use the expertise of both companies to ensure the safe, rapid and economic decommissioning of the nuke.

“Holtec is owned by U.S. citizens,” Cowan said, stressing that while the company has interests in other countries around the world, it’s not owned by foreigners. In fact, she went as far to point out an owner has a home at the Jersey Shore, though she didn’t say where.

Other company officials noted foreign subsidiaries of Holtec are controlled by the U.S.-owned conglomerate, not the other way around. Still, at least one federal official noted the company is privately owned and so less is known about its business than a publicly traded company, such as Exelon.

Regardless of ownership, the NRC will continue to have oversight at Oyster Creek, Broaddus said. Part of that oversight, he said, includes disbursements from the nuclear decommissioning trust fund all owners and operators of nuclear plants in the country must maintain. The cost of decommissioning Oyster Creek is $1.4 billion. Exelon has already stashed away approximately $913 million, as of the end of 2017, in a trust to pay for the cost of decommissioning.

In the event the NRC does approve the license transfer, the funds from the Oyster Creek’s decommissioning trust would be transferred to Holtec upon closing and would be used by Holtec to cover the cost of the decommissioning. The trust fund was established decades ago to pay for decommissioning, and no additional funds from utility customers would be required.

“Funds will be spent for decommissioning activities, not for other purposes,” Broaddus said. “We do look at that closely.”

Neil Sheehan, public affairs officer for the NRC Region 1 Office, said the federal agency does allow plant owners to use money from the trust fund for spent fuel management costs.

“However, most owners have sued the U.S. Department of Energy for failing to remove spent nuclear fuel from their sites and have received financial settlements to help them cover those costs,” he said.

Should the NRC fail to approve the license transfer or the deal with Holtec fail to materialize, Exelon’s current plans to place the nuke in safe storage would be implemented, according to Gallagher’s presentation.

Under Exelon’s plan, the nuke would sit dormant from March 2020 to December 2073. Beginning in March 2024, all spent nuclear fuel in the fuel pool would be moved to the Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation pad onsite. The company has already moved 34 dry cask assemblies to the site pad. By June 2076, large component removal onsite would be complete, and in December 2076, plant system removal and building decontamination would be wrapped up. Exelon’s plans call for license termination by September 2078 and full site restoration in 2080.

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