Significant Nuke Plant Acreage Slated for Donation After September Closing

Jul 25, 2018
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

Exelon Generation, which operates the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station, announced last week it intends to bestow a quarter, or 217 acres, of the land on which the nation’s oldest commercial nuclear plant now sits to its host community, Lacey Township. In doing so, it also said it does not have plans for land use or redevelopment of the remainder of the site at this time.

The donation is expected after the nuke comes permanently offline in September. Oyster Creek, which went online in December 1969, sits on 779 acres of land in the Forked River section of the township. Roughly 152 acres of land are located on the west side of Route 9 with the bulk, or 627 acres, on what was once known locally as Finninger Farm.

The nuke site is surrounded by arms of the Oyster Creek and Forked River. Its main source of cooling water comes from Barnegat Bay via an intake canal along the South Branch of the Forked River. Within the first two months of being offline, the water flow through the intake canal is expected to be reduced by 96 percent, Exelon Generation officials said at last week’s public hearing on decommissioning plans for the nuke plant. The hearing was hosted by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which earlier this month held a public webinar to address the issue.

In February, Exelon Generation officials announced their intention to take Oyster Creek offline in the fall, more than 14 months earlier than anticipated when the company agreed to cease operations in 2019 instead of building cooling towers onsite. It was licensed to operate until 2029 under a license extension approval granted by the NRC in April 2009.

“Exelon continues to assess all options for the decommissioning of Oyster Creek,” company officials said during the July 17 public hearing, adding they’ve selected safe storage as the current strategy for decommissioning the plant.

In safe storage, a nuclear plant is left intact or may be partially dismantled. The fuel is removed from the reactor vessel, and radioactive liquids are drained from the systems and components, then processed.  The radioactive decay during safe storage lowers the level of contamination and radioactivity that must be disposed of during decontamination and dismantlement.

“In all strategies, moving fuel to dry storage as soon as possible reduces risk and is the most efficient option,” according to the company officials.

Dry cask storage systems have been certified to maintain structural integrity and function from flooding, high winds and impacts, company officials said. Approximately six acres of land will house spent fuel storage. Whether the company will need to expand its current dry cask pad to accommodate the remaining spent fuel from the boiling water reactor is unknown because the company hasn’t selected a vendor for the work. Oyster Creek has already removed 34 dry cask assemblies to the site pad.

The first nuclear plant to use dry cask storage was the Surry Power Station in Virginia, dating back more than three decades. The use of dry cask canisters was thought to be a temporary solution to house spent fuel, but the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada dead-ended, and the NRC is still looking at two potential interim sites, one in Texas and the other in New Mexico.

In the meantime, the only option for U.S. nuclear power plants is to store spent fuel from the reactor vessel onsite, federal officials said.

Exelon officials said they’re committed to operating Oyster Creek safely and efficiently with a smooth transition into site decommissioning.

“Nuclear, environmental and industrial safety remain the core principles that drive our decommissioning plans,” company officials said in their presentation. “The nuclear industry is developing expertise in decommissioning as a result of other industry shutdowns; we will continue building on that experience from earlier efforts.”

Exelon officials also said they will continue to have an active emergency response organization at Oyster Creek throughout decommissioning. A five-member, presidentially appointed commission that oversees the NRC recently approved Exelon’s request to alter the nuclear plant’s emergency plans following the permanent shutdown Sept. 17, according to Neil Sheehan, public information officer for NRC Region 1. The changes will take effect in about 12 months after operations cease, he said.

“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,” Sheehan said, adding NRC staff has reviewed and approved similar requests for other permanently shut-down nuclear power plants.

Exelon Generation officials have said the primary objectives for decommissioning the plant are to take it out of service, reduce residual radioactivity to levels permitting unrestricted release, restore the site, perform the work safely, and complete the work in a cost-effective manner.

Ahead of last week’s public hearing, Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said decommissioning and dismantling of Oyster Creek should be done as soon as possible.

It is “located on a site vulnerable to sea level rise. As long as this plant isn’t dismantled, the community remains at risk. The current plan to close Oyster Creek takes far too long to close the plant,” he said in a prepared statement. “We fought for many years to fight for the plant to be decommissioned. Now they want to take 40-60 years to take it apart. We can’t wait that long. The faster they clean it up, the safer we will be and the sooner we can use the site for a different purpose.”

In addition to the six U.S. nuclear power plants in active decommissioning, there are 14 units in safe storage. Exelon began planning for decommissioning Oyster Creek in 2014 and has amassed $913 million in a trust toward the $1.4 billion needed to decommission the nuke.

For those unable to attend the July 17 public hearing, the NRC is accepting written comments for consideration until Sept. 10.

— Gina G. Scala

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