Anti-nuclear advocates have filed emergency legal proceedings with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and appealed to Gov. Chris Christie to intervene and ensure that "major flaws" at Oyster Creek Generating Station are addressed prior to the nuclear plant returns online.
“We’ve just been through a heartwrenching catastrophe with Sandy,” said Janet Tauro, chair of the Board of Directors of the NJ Environmental Federation (NJEF) and founder of Grandmothers, Mothers and More for Energy Safety (GRAMMES). “So many have lost their homes, been displaced, been made physically ill by the aftermath of the devastation, that to add the greater risk of a Fukushima radioactive event to the mix would simply be inhuman.”
The petition seeks to keep the nuclear plant, which was shut down before Sandy for a routine refueling and maintenance outage, offline until safety measures are implemented to address new problems.
The advocates argue that the evacuation plan is flawed and was further weakened by Sandy. They also noted that there is a possible violation of NRC regulations by plant owner Exelon to notify the federal agency of significant changes that would compromise that plan. Nuclear power plants cannot operate without an approved evacuation plan.
“It is entirely possible Exelon is in violation of federal regulations,” said Richard Webster of the Environmental Enforcement Project at Public Justice. Webster is counsel to GRAMMES, NJEF and Beyond Nuclear, who filed the petition Monday. “It is time to be reasonable, get smart and shut down Oyster Creek.”
The emergency plans are FEMA’s jurisdiction, said NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan. While the NRC deals with onsite measures, FEMA would address anything offsite.
The NRC communicates with Oyster Creek on events that occur at the plant, Sheehan said. FEMA evaluates emergency plans annually and conducts drills while working with the state, county and local communities.
“Following Hurricane Sandy, we’ve been closely communicating with FEMA concerns with Oyster Creek’s emergency plan,” he said. “We’ll continue to engage them on that but we haven’t received any feedback from FEMA that they believe the plan cannot be carried out.”
According to the activists involved in the petition, the following are new safety concerns at Oyster Creek:
- The intake canal was inches away from flooding pumps key to the cooling system
- The pre-Sandy evacuation plan fails to address the post-Sandy reality of new population centers in evacuation shelters and other places, clogged streets with debris and construction vehicles, and displaced emergency responders
- Sandy proved the design basis (how strong a storm the plant can withstand) inadequate
- The barrier island’s natural physical defenses are now weaker and make Oyster Creek more vulnerable than before Sandy
- Inspections during the outage revealed new cracks or precursors to cracks in and/or around the reactor vessel and control rods
- 33 of 43 emergency sirens were inoperable at the height of Sandy
“Sandy was catastrophic on many levels, but it could have been worse,” said David Pringle, Campaign Director of the NJ Environmental Federation, the Garden State Chapter of Clean Water Action. “Fortunately, Oyster Creek was off line when Sandy hit. It needs to stay so until the problems exposed during the outage and caused by Sandy are adequately addressed.”
Operators at Oyster Creek Generating Station declared an alert on Oct. 29 when water was 6 feet above mean sea level at the plant’s water intake structure, Sheehan said. The classifications were eliminated on Oct. 30 when the water level had declined.
“There was more margin there than six inches where the pumps would have been affected,” he said of the advocates' first concern. “Even if they were affected, they have other means to perform the cooling function.”
The “indication” is not a crack but a flaw that if left unaddressed could eventually develop into a crack. The flaws on the reactor nozzle are unrelated to Hurricane Sandy, Sheehan previously said.
Sheehan added, as of Tuesday, only two of the 42 sirens in the plant’s 10-mile radius Emergency Planning Zone are still out of service.
“Both are in Seaside Heights and were damaged by the storm and will need significant repairs,” he said.
When sirens are out of service, “route alerting” is utilized, he said. Meaning, emergency responders would drive the affected streets and use loudspeakers to notify residents of a significant event at the plant.
The NRC began an inspection of Oyster Creek on Nov. 13 in response to issues related to Hurricane Sandy. Three inspectors are reviewing activities related to water level increases at the plant's water intake structure during the storm and will expand on reviews made during and after the storm by the NRC's resident inspectors assigned to Oyster Creek.
The NRC follows a process for petitions, Sheehan said. A Petition Review Board of NRC staff will be developed to go through the issues and determine if they warrant a response.
For this particular issue, there is a time factor, he said, since the anti-nuclear advocates want the concerns to be addressed prior to the nuclear power plant returning online.
“At this point, we don’t have any hold that would prevent the plant from restarting,” he said.
Because of the regular refueling and maintenance outage as well as inspections following Hurricane Sandy, the NRC has been following the aforementioned concerns, he said.
“We don’t see a cause to prohibit them from restarting,” he said.
The advocates have yet to receive a response from the Governor’s office but have called on Christie to ensure Oyster Creek remains offline until five conditions are met:
- The evacuation plan is updated to reflect the new reality post-Sandy
- The design storm for flood defense purposes is update to reflect the recent spate of storms and climate change and, additional flood protection is put in place as appropriate.
- The “indications” (cracks or their precursors) are investigated and the public assured through release of additional data and analysis they pose no additional risk of a nuclear catastrophe
- Exelon reviews whether the indications were predicted by its modeling and whether it can predict that no problematic indications will develop before the next inspection cycle and proof of ability to predict fatigue accurately is released to the public.
- The NRC and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Oyster Creek advisory panel hold public meetings that satisfactorily answer the public’s concerns.
The petition will not impact Oyster Creek’s ability to complete the plant’s refueling outage and return the unit to service, plant spokesperson Suzanne D’Ambrosio said.
“NRC inspectors were onsite before, during and after Hurricane Sandy, providing independent regulatory oversight of our preparations, our performance and our response to the storm,” she said. “All reviews to date confirm that Oyster Creek remained safe and strong throughout the event."
The Governor’s office did not immediately return calls for comment.
For a copy of the petition, see the attached PDF.