Sunday, December 23, 2007

EDITORIAL: Battle to shut Oyster Creek has just begun

December 23, 2007

It has been 3-1/2 years since we ran an eight-part editorial series urging citizens and state and federal officials to fight a 20-year license extension for the Oyster Creek nuclear plant in Lacey, the oldest such plant in the nation. Today, in the face of almost certain approval of license renewal by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, possibly as early as next month, our reservations are stronger than ever. The fight must continue. And it will, in a venue where opponents will get a more objective airing of the issues — the federal courts.

Last week, as expected, the licensing board of the NRC signed off on the safety of Oyster Creek's drywell, smoothing the way for approval by the full commission. Ironically, and somewhat symbolically, a pump failure at the reactor the following day forced a "hot shutdown" that resulted in the death of at least 3,300 fish and what is sure to be another hefty fine for plant operator AmerGen.

The licensing board's decision is far from the final hurdle for Oyster Creek's continued operation after its current license expires in 2009. A dissenting voice in the three-judge panel's opinion essentially echoed activists' argument that the plant's drywell monitoring plan was insufficient to ensure adequate safety margins during the life of the license extension. That could loom large in a federal court appeal. There are many other valid grounds for appeal to choose from. The citizen activists, coalition of environmental groups and Gov. Corzine must exhaust all of them.

From the outset, we expressed concerned about the NRC license renewal process, which allowed only two factors to be taken into account: whether the plant could be operated safely and whether it would have an adverse impact on the environment. The testimony presented over the past two years has glossed over many of the safety and environmental issues, raising more questions than it has answered. And the list of relevant considerations that couldn't be taken into account at all is lengthy. Among them:

— Oyster Creek's reactor building and the spent fuel rod pool that sits above it are vulnerable to terrorist attack from jet aircraft.

— The evacuation plan is grossly inadequate.

— The deregulation of the electricity industry has forced nuclear plant owners to become fiercely competitive, providing new incentives for trimming staff, reducing maintenance, deferring repairs and taking shortcuts that can improve profitability at the expense of safety.

— Environmental, safety and security lapses at Oyster Creek have raised serious questions about the competence of its management and the adequacy of resources devoted to safety and security.

— More than 50 years after electricity was first generated by a nuclear reactor, there is still no plan for the safe transport and disposal of radioactive spent fuel.

— Studies about the health effects of those living near nuclear power plants remain inconclusive.

— The Oyster Creek plant was conceived when the population in Ocean County was less than 125,000. Today, more than 560,000 people live in Ocean County and more than 3.5 million people reside within a 50-mile radius of the plant.

— The loss of Oyster Creek from the electrical grid of which New Jersey is a part would have no appreciable impact on the supply of power in New Jersey, electric rates or reliability of service.

Today, there is still no viable long-term national plan for disposing of radioactive waste. The NRC continues to resist any attempts to fortify plants with vulnerable spent fuel pools against airborne terrorist attack. A new study in Germany, which plans to shut down all its nuclear power plants by the early 2020s, showed the incidence of childhood cancer was significantly higher among those living near nuclear plants. Oyster Creek's evacuation plan continues to be a work of fiction; if ever implemented in the event of a nuclear emergency, it would quickly become a horror tale. And Oyster Creek continues to kill fish, shocking them with releases of hot, or cold, water into the south branch of the Forked River.

The citizen activists who have worked tirelessly to bring the issues to the attention of state and federal officials deserve enormous credit for exposing the flaws of the license renewal process and the dangers posed by the plant. But their work, and that of elected officials, must not cease. They must continue to fight on the following fronts:

— If the planned appeal of the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board's decision to recommend approval of a license extension is denied by the NRC, the state should join with citizen activists in appealing the denial in federal court.

— In light of the recent study in Germany, Corzine should order the state health department to conduct an immediate review of related research and fund further research of the Tooth Fairy Project, which has been exploring a possible link between childhood cancers and strontium 90, a cancer-causing, radioactive isotope produced only in nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors.

— Corzine's final draft of his new energy master plan, due out early next year, must exclude Oyster Creek as an energy source.

— Given the concerns raised about monitoring of the drywell in the licensing board report, Corzine must insist that comprehensive measurements of the drywell thickness be taken as soon as possible. The plant should be closed immediately if it can't be proven that the thickness satisfies national engineering codes.

— Corzine and state Environmental Commissioner Lisa Jackson must insist that AmerGen build a cooling tower as part of its permit to withdraw and discharge water to cool the reactor. That is the only way Oyster Creek can satisfy an Environmental Protection Agency directive requiring nuclear plants to use the best available technology to minimize adverse impact on aquatic life.

— New Jersey should join the coalition of Oyster Creek activists, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and Westchester County, N.Y., in a federal lawsuit seeking to compel the NRC to evaluate all aspects that affect a nuclear power plant's safety before renewing a license.

— Corzine should petition the courts to require that all pending license renewal applications be suspended until a recent audit highly critical of the rigor of the relicensing process by the NRC's inspector general be thoroughly reviewed by an independent body. The audit determined that agency reports on relicensing resorted to cutting and pasting applications of other plants and provided no description of the methodology used or backup data for their conclusions.

We also expressed deep reservations about the license renewal process, which severely restricted the factors to be considered in evaluating the plant, the manner in which the NRC historically had rubber-stamped license extension requests and the fact that it never denied a license renewal for a plant requesting one. All those fears have been borne out by the process.

The efforts of the citizens and environmentalists who have done battle with the NRC have been nothing short of valiant. It is time for Corzine to match their energy, ingenuity and commitment to ensuring the health of the Shore area and its inhabitants for generations to come.

More on Oyster Creek:

Exelon N.J. Oyster Creek reactor exits outrage
EDITORIAL: Battle to shut Oyster Creek has just begun
EDITORIAL:The Devil you know.Keeping Oyster Creek on line
Oyster Creek Trims Output to Valve Problem
Oyster Creek plant to stay at 92% power until April
Oyster Creek Generating Station clears last major hurdle in bid for 20-year license renewal

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