Environmental groups are not giving up on efforts to close the recently relicensed reactor
A coalition of a half-dozen environmental groups, thwarted in their efforts to shut down one of the nation’s oldest operating commercial nuclear reactors, has a new tactic. The groups are pushing the State of New Jersey to require the 619 MW Oyster Creek boiling water reactor (BWR), owned and operated by Exelon (NYSE:EXC), to build cooling towers. The structures would cost hundreds of millions to build.
Exelon said at a NJ legislative hearing on the proposal in December that if the requirement was enacted, it would shut down the reactor. This is exactly the result the environmental groups want to occur.
The environmental groups have a new ally in their quest. It is a proposal to require the cooling towers as part of the reactor’s water quality permit from the state. On Jan 7, Mark N. Mauriello, Acting Commissioner for the NJ Department of Environmental Protection, issued a draft permit requiring the structures. The objective is to obtain by regulation what could not be achieved by legislation.
The Oyster Creek reactor discharges cooling water from its “once through” system into a canal that empties into Barnegat Bay. The reactor uses hundreds of millions of gallons of water a day, but it is not a consumptive use. Environmental groups contend the heated water and biocides used to keep plankton and shellfish out of the reactor’s pipes and pumps also contribute to fish kills in the bay.
Complex issues or political agenda?
The DEP draft permit requirement would change the plant’s use of water to a closed system that would use cooling towers rather than a once-through system. Mauriello has made public statements that the proposal “involves complex issues,” but he believes that the new cooling system “will significantly reduce the amount of water the plant needs.”
He added that the new draft water permit would, if imposed on the plant through the regulatory authority of his agency, “reduce impacts on aquatic life in the bay.” Mauriello has scheduled hearings on the draft permit for February 2010.
Exelon spokesman Joe Dominguez is not waiting for the hearings to make his point about the fiscal impact of the draft proposal to require the reactor to build the cooling towers. He told wire services Jan 7 that Exelon “will have no alternative but to shut the reactor down” if the permit condition is imposed on the plant. He pointed out that in the past NJ DEP had rejected the idea of requiring cooling towers because “they were not cost-effective. “
What's changed is that a lame duck governor, has taken a last, politically-motivated, stab at shutting down the reactor. Gov. Corzine, a Democrat, was endorsed by some high profile environmental groups, but others, notably the Sierra Club, supported an independent party candidate. Last July the Sierra Club ripped Corzine over his environmental record.
The action to impose the draft permit conditions for cooling towers on Oyster Creek can be seen as a move to consolidate support by green groups for the Democrats. The Sierra Club and five other groups, are part of a loose coalition trying to shut down all nuclear reactors in New Jersey.
History of efforts to shut down Oyster Creek
The cooling tower dispute is the latest in a series of targeted attacks by NJ environmental groups on the Oyster Creek reactor. The NRC renewed the plant’s license for another 20 years in April 2009, but only after a contentious effort by the environmental coalition to stop it.
The groups tried one tactic after another including raising issues involving the potential for terrorist attacks, the rigor of the NRC review itself. and corrosion and the age of the plant.
The NRC said in a statement about the renewal of the license, “This has been the most extensive license renewal to date.” The license application was received by the agency in July 2005 and was renewed in April 2009.
Political status of the cooling tower proposal
Mauirello, (right) who was appointed to his acting role by outgoing NJ Governor Jon Corzine, may not continue in that position once Gov-elect Chris Christie takes office Jan 19. Maurillo is a career state employee who joined DEP in 1980.
On Jan 7 Gov.-elect Chris Christie said he was "disappointed" that Gov. Jon Corzine "decided to play last-minute politics" with the environment and economy by proposing to require cooling towers at the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant after four years of inaction.”
"We've had four years here to consider this draft (state) permit and the administration hasn't taken any action on it until the week before the next governor is sworn in," said Maria Comella, his spokeswoman.
Comella said that Christie would meet with stakeholders about the cooling towers after he takes office.
New Jersey is ranked 10th among the states for nuclear energy
Oyster Creek isn’t the only nuclear reactor in New Jersey. Three other reactors provide, with Oyster Creek, about half of the state’s electricity. According to the Energy Information Administration, coal provides another 16% and natural gas provides 30%.
Neither of the two reactors at the Salem nuclear plant use cooling towers. It is likely that if the state were to similarly impose the cooling tower requirement on them, and all three reactors shut down, the state would lose 2,923 MW of electrical generation capacity.
This is equal to losing 38% of its total electrical generation capacity. It would have a stunning negative impact on the state’s economy. The replacement power would have to be purchased on the spot market and most likely from fossil sources.
Environmental groups who have mounted their sustained campaign to shut down Oyster Creek may not realize it, but, if successful, their victory would be felt far more significantly in the checkbooks of the state’s businesses and residents than in the protection of fish in Barnegat Bay.
The cooling towers proposal is a developing issue. The permit won’t be imposed on Oyster Creek in the closing days of the Corzine administration.
Will reason about the benefit-cost issues of cooling towers prevail in New Jersey? The new governor already has the issue on his radar screen. He’ll need to move fast if he wants to keep the lights on between Philadelphia and New York.
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