Oyster Creek Nuclear Plant’s Age, Safety Topics at Annual NRC Meeting

May 31, 2017

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission addressed concerns about the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station’s age and safety at its annual, May 25 performance review meeting, where a low-level safety concern by the federal agency after an inspection found an insufficiency in work on a safety-related valve took center stage.

“My first reaction to the white finding, as an observer, is it’s the classic enabler in a 12-step program,” Brick resident Jeff Brown, speaking on behalf of the antinuclear group GRAMMIES, said at the meeting, held at the Holiday Inn in Manahawkin. “It’s mundane things, but the little things add up.”

The white finding in question surrounds a deficiency found with one of the plant’s electromatic relief valves, which are used to depressurize the reactor during a pipe break. An NRC inspection uncovered the deficit last year, although the moderate infraction wasn’t issued until this spring. Under NRC oversight, a white finding is of low to moderate safety significance. The feds use a color-coded system to categorize inspection findings. Colors range from green, for very low, to white, yellow, or red – the last is a substantial safety or security consequence.

“Failure to install a washer is what caused the white finding,” Dave Pelton, deputy director NRC Region 1 Division of Reactor Projects, said. He said the color of the risk associated with any finding changes the federal agency’s perspective on how to hold the licensee accountable. “It’s largely based on the issues, and if the licensee took action.”

Pelton said civil penalties could be levied against a licensee that doesn’t immediately address any situation.

“The owner is ultimately responsible for running the plant safely,” Pelton said.

Sue D’Ambrosio, Oyster Creek spokeswoman, said in addition to the regulatory process, the plant’s owner, Exelon, has a process of its own that “identifies challenges that need to be addressed.”

“We welcome the opportunity to improve the way we do things, like any business,” she said. “That’s what we do.”

For years before Oyster Creek reached its milestone 40th birthday mark, opponents used its age as cause to shut the plant down. As it approaches its 48th year of generating electricity, the age of the plant is still being questioned when it comes to safety. It is the oldest nuclear power plant operating in the country.

“The number is strictly a number. It’s well maintained, always has been. It’s constantly upgraded,” D’Ambrosio said. “It runs safely and reliably, generating enough energy to serve 600,000 homes in the area.”

Brown, however, argues the plant is entering “one of the most dangerous times” as it nears its 2019 shutdown date – an agreement Illinois-based Exelon made with the state instead of building cooling towers at the plant. The NRC approved its license renewal in 2009, allowing the plant to operate until 2029.

As a nuclear plant nears shutdown activities, the NRC re-evaluates its inspection process, focusing on areas such as maintenance and staffing, Pelton said.

“We look at the safety culture” of any nuclear power plant and monitor the staff, he said.

Additionally, in just 2016 alone, the NRC conducted more than 7,160 hours of inspection and other related activities at Oyster Creek, according Amar Patel, senior NRC resident inspector at the Lacey Township-based nuke.

“We have a good feel for what is going on,” Silas Kennedy, NRC Region 1 branch chief responsible for Oyster Creek, said. “They (Exelon) are required to address (things) if we find them.”

The base-load nuclear generating station is a single unit boiling water reactor, located on 800 acres on neighboring Oyster Creek. It first came online in December 1969. It is licensed to operate through April 9, 2029, but is slated to come offline permanently Dec. 31, 2019.

Oyster Creek is one of four nuclear power plants licensed to operate in New Jersey. Salem Nuclear Power Plant has two units, and the fourth unit is at Hope Creek Nuclear Generating Station.

— Gina G. Scala


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