Oyster Creek Generating Station Ends Tenure as Nation’s Oldest Operating Commercial Nuke

Sep 18, 2018
Photo by: Jack Reynolds Dave Tillman, Exelon Generation director of communications, explains how the Oyster Creek Nuclear Power Plant was shut down earlier in the day. A simulation of an operator in the control room, plays on a closed-circuit screen.

On an overcast September Monday, the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station scrammed one final time, shutting down with the rapid insertion of control rods, and ending nearly five decades of nuclear energy production at the Lacey Township-based plant. Even as company and town officials termed the day somber, discussions about what could potentially replace the nuke were already underway.

“We knew this day was coming,” Gary Quinn, a former five-term Lacey Township mayor and current township committeeman, said prior to a media event at its training center commemorating the plant’s closure. “We’re planning for the future.”

Gas turbine and wind energy are both being looked at, according to Quinn. He also noted Jersey Central Power and Light, which owns the property behind the plant, is interested in the land.

Oyster Creek, once one of the largest employers in the county and the nation’s oldest operating nuclear power plant, is situated on 779 acres of land in the Forked River section of Lacey Township. The bulk, or 627 acres, is located on what was once known locally as Finninger Farm, with the remaining 152 acres on the west side of the state highway. It is surrounded by branches of the Oyster Creek and Forked River with its main source of cooling water coming from Barnegat Bay via an intake canal along the South Branch of the Forked River.

“There are people who say nuclear isn’t the best. I say that’s ridiculous,” said Bryan Hanson, Exelon Generation’s chief nuclear officer. “Nukes are closing, and it’s not why you think. It’s not safety or reliability.”

It is the economics and the lack of commitment to nuclear energy from state and federal officials, he said.

Since it began generating electricity, Oyster Creek, a single-unit boiling water reactor, has produced almost 200 million megawatts of carbon-free electricity, enough to power approximately 600,000 homes for nearly 50 years with virtually no greenhouse emissions. Its employees have worked 257 million hours safely while training and licensing 187 nuclear operators since 1969.

In its near 49 years of operation, Oyster Creek offset more than 140 million metric tons of carbon, the equivalent of nearly 31 million cars.

Plant employees are estimated to have dumped more than $3 billion into the local economy through wages, taxes, charitable donations and local spending. The annual payroll at the plant at the time of its closing was $68 million.

“I'm not happy to see this day come,” Quinn said, adding Exelon Generation, which owns and operated the nuke, has been a great neighbor and partner. So much so that when asked if there was anything it could do for the township, Mayor Nicholas Juliano responded “stay. That’s what I really wanted.”

Township officials expect to see a gradual economic decrease coming from the plant as decommissioning progresses and the buildings are dismantled, but that’s years removed from now. Roughly $2.5 million flows into the town coffers each year from the municipal property tax at the plant, according to Quinn. The majority of the money from the plant, though, he said, doesn’t actually come from the plant. It comes from the nearly $11 million the town receives in energy tax receipts from the state for hosting the nuke.

“Exelon doesn’t control that; neither does Holtec,” he said. “That’s Trenton.”

In July, Exelon Generation announced it had reached a deal with Holtec International, a New Jersey-based energy technology company, to purchase the plant and take over its decommissioning duties. The two companies jointly filed a license transfer application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission last month. If approved, the sale would take effect sometime in the third quarter of 2019.

“We’re very optimistic the deal will close,” said Dave Tillman, director of communications. “It’s a good deal. We’re confident Holtec can do the work.”

Approximately 300 of Oyster Creek’s employees will be staying on for the decommissioning work, which begins with the removal of the reactor’s fuel supply for storage in the site’s dry cask system. After that, workers will ready the site for dismantlement and long-term decommissioning.

Decommissioning under Exelon’s plan would take the full 60 years permitted under federal regulations. Holtec, should the NRC approve the license transfer, promises to have the site fully remediated in eight years so it can be repurposed. If the feds haven’t provided either a permanent or interim repository for the spent nuclear fuel, it will remain on site with a security force and systems in place, Tillman said.

“This is a historic day for New Jersey because Oyster Creek is finally closing,” Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said. “We’ve been fighting this for more than 15 years. This is an important day for our state and for moving forward with renewable energy. It’s a good thing for New Jersey.”

On Monday afternoon, employees continued to process the plant in cold shutdown, the term used to define a reactor coolant system at atmospheric pressure and at a temperature below 200 degrees Fahrenheit following a reactor cooldown. A cooldown is the gradual decrease in reactor fuel rod temps caused by the removal of heat from the coolant system after the reactor has been shut down.

“I am humbled and honored to have worked with such a great team,” Tim Moore, Oyster Creek site vice president, said. “They brought us to our next chapter.”

— Gina G. Scala

ggscala@thesandpaper.net

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