Post-Shutdown Nuke Emergency Plan Pending

Feb 14, 2018

While many are heralding the early closure of the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station as an environmental victory, plenty of unknowns remain about its parent company’s schedule for decommissioning the plant, including its emergency response plans.

Last summer, Exelon Corp., the Illinois-based utility company that owns and operates the plant, submitted a post-shutdown emergency plan for the plant, seeking a license amendment and exemptions of federal regulations.

“The plan calls for the proposed changes to take effect approximately 12 months after the plant has ceased operations,” Neil Sheehan, NRC public information officer for Region 1, said last week. “The 12-month period is based on Exelon’s analysis showing the fuel in the spent fuel pool will have cooled sufficiently to significantly reduce the risk of a fire in the pool that could release radioactivity to the environment.”

In the meantime, he said, the plant’s current emergency plan would remain in effect. The exemptions, according to the request, would allow the company to reduce the emergency planning requirements and revise the plant’s emergency plan to reflect a permanently defueled plant, he said.

Exelon announced Feb. 1 that due to financial costs and better employment opportunities for existing staff, it would shut down Oyster Creek this October. It was previously planned to come permanently offline Dec. 31, 2019, nearly a decade early than required by the NRC, under an agreement struck with New Jersey officials that allowed the company to forgo installing cooling towers at the Forked River-based nuke plant.

Exelon Generation will work with local officials, state agencies and the NRC to plan for long-term decommissioning of the plant. Oyster Creek’s approximate 500 employees will continue to operate the plant until October with some staying on to decommission the nuke following its closure.

Should the NRC approve Exelon’s request, the company would no longer be required to maintain a 10-mile-radius emergency planning zone around the Route 9-based plant. Instead, the emergency plan coverage would shrink to the footprint of the plant, Sheehan said. Additionally, the company would no longer be mandated to continue to test and operate the emergency siren system located throughout the 10-mile emergency planning zone.

“They could remain in place or be removed,” Sheehan said. “We have seen that in the case of some other plants, some or all of those sirens have been transferred to local authorities to use as they see fit, i.e. to be used for notifications of other emergencies, such as tornadoes. Exelon would have to comment on whether it has any plans at this point as to what might happen with the Oyster Creek sirens.”

When the company submitted its emergency plan license amendment and exemption request, it asked for an NRC decision within 18 months, Sheehan said. It’s unclear whether Exelon will ask for an expedited timeline now that the plant is slated to come offline this fall.

“The NRC staff has reviewed similar requests for other nuclear power plants headed toward permanent shutdown,” Sheehan said. “Once a plant is no longer running, and all of the remaining fuel in the reactor has been moved to the spent fuel pool (SFP), 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 should there be failure, he said.

“The radiological consequences resulting from the only remaining events (e.g., loss of SFP cooling) develop over a significantly longer period,” according to the company. “As such, a 15-minute notification requirement is unnecessarily restrictive. A time of 60 minutes after the availability of indications to operators that an EAL (emergency alert level) threshold has been reached has been negotiated with the State of New Jersey and provides a reasonable amount of time to notify the state and local governmental authorities.”

Portable pumps and fire hoses could potentially help offset an event, Sheehan added.

Oyster Creek produces 636 net megawatts of electricity at full power, enough electricity to supply 600,000 typical homes, the equivalent to all homes in Monmouth and Ocean counties combined. The facility is a single-unit boiling water reactor, located on 800 acres neighboring Oyster Creek. It is one of four nuclear power plants licensed to operate in New Jersey. Salem Nuclear Power Plant has two units; the fourth unit is at Hope Creek Nuclear Generating Station.

— Gina G. Scala 

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