Emergency Planning Changes Sought Following Oyster Creek Final Shutdown

Sep 20, 2017
File Photo by Jack Reynolds

Exelon Corp., which owns and operates the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station, petitioned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a change in its emergency planning requirements following the shutdown of the Lacey Township-based nuke in December 2019, citing the permanently defueled condition of the plant. The Illinois-based company is asking for a decision within the next 18 months, or by Feb. 22, 2019.

“The NRC staff has reviewed similar requests for other permanently shut-down nuclear power plants,” Neil Sheehan,  NRC Region 1 public information officer, said, noting all U.S. nuclear power plants that have permanently ceased operations have requested significant post-shutdown changes to their emergency plans. “Once a plant is no longer running, and all of the remaining fuel in the reactor has been moved to the spent fuel pool, the biggest remaining risk on-site is the fuel in the pool.”

Sheehan said the risk stems from the possibility of a draining of water in the fuel pool, and with the loss of coolant, fuel heating up to the point there could be a failure of the zirconium cladding of the fuel rods, a fire, and release of radioactivity into the environment. Exelon’s analysis concludes that 12 months after Oyster Creek shuts down for the last time, there would be 10 hours before the fuel would reach this point, he said. The company also claims there would be ample warning, and time for operators to take steps to replenish the water in the pool. Portable pumps and fire hoses could potentially help offset an event, Sheehan said.

“We will need to thoroughly review the analysis, and determine if the company’s assessment of the risks is accurate,” he said, noting that each nuclear plant has a different lifespan, providing distinctive quantities of fuel in the pool. Citing Vermont Yankee, Sheehan said that plant performed an analysis that showed the risk of a post-shutdown fire in the pool to diminish to a sufficiently safe level to allow significant emergency plan changes 15.4 months after the reactor ceased operations.

Oyster Creek’s exemption request involves a number of noteworthy changes to the plant’s emergency plans, including ending the 10-mile Emergency Planning Zone around the Route 9 plant; the need for sirens in the 10-mile zone; the need for full-scale graded emergency exercises, which are currently conducted every two years; the need for multiple response facilities; updating evacuation time estimates (required every 10 years for an operating reactor); a large reduction in emergency response staff; and the dissemination of emergency plan information to the public.

“The number of staff at OCNGS during the decommissioning process will be small but commensurate with the need to safely store fuel at the facility in a manner that is protective of public health and safety,” according to the request. “OCNGS will maintain a level of emergency response that does not require additional response by headquarters personnel. The on-shift and emergency response positions are defined in the Permanently Defueled Emergency Plan and will be regularly tested through drills and exercises, audited, and inspected by OCNGS and the NRC.”

Oyster Creek will continue to invite the state, as well as local support, to participate in periodic drills and exercises conducted to assess their ability to perform responsibilities related to an emergency at the plant to the extent defined by the plant’s emergency plan, according to the exemption request.

“Because the need for offsite emergency planning is relaxed due to the low probability of the postulated accident or other credible events that would be expected to result in an offsite radioactive release that would exceed the EPA PAGs (Protective Action Guidelines),” the request states, “and the available time for event mitigation, no formal offsite radiological emergency plans will be in place to test.”

Most residents won’t notice a change, with the possible exceptions of the periodic testing of sirens; the removal of sirens (if Exelon opts to do that); the end of the emergency exercises; a halt to the distribution or stockpiling of KI pills; and changes to the dissemination of emergency information to the surrounding communities, Sheehan said.

Additionally, Exelon is also seeking a license amendment to modify Oyster Creek’s site emergency plan and the emergency action levels following the nuke’s closure. An EAL is a pre-determined, site-specific, observable threshold for a plant condition that places the plant in an emergency class. If the license amendment is approved, it would take effect 12 months after the reactor is shut down for the final time.

“We have a petition process that allows members of the public to raise safety concerns,” Sheehan said. And while there’s no hearing required for exemption requests, license amendment requests do present an opportunity to seek a hearing, he added.

Gina G. Scala




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