October 19, 2005

Nuclear Jersey

My father, Rod Sterling, is running for township committee in Lacey Township, NJ. He's running as an independent, having decided to steer clear of the corrupt county Republican Party apparatus.

The campaign is interesting (maybe) to a national and international audience because Lacey is the home of Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station, the oldest operating commercial nuclear reactor in the United States. Oyster Creek is up for license renewal in 2009, and though nearly every politician and environmentalist in New Jersey, New York City and Long Island is trying to shut it down, the plant remains popular with local residents. Of the three candidates for township committee, however, my father is the only one who explicitly supports re-licensing. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has expressed no objection in principle to the renewal, but expects Oyster Creek to jump through the same safety hoops that a new nuclear plant would. That is appropriate and proper - the plant should be permitted to operate only if it's safe.

In typical dictatorial fashion, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is attempting to overrule the federal NRC by forbidding the plant from continuing to use (as it has since 1969) a local creek as the output channel for heated water. The reactor raises the temperature of the creek - no radiation or other pollutants are released - so when the plant periodically shuts down for servicing, the drop in water temperature causes a fish kill. You would get a similar effect by turning off the heater in a household fish tank. The are no apparent long-term consequences of the fish kill, and the Jersey Shore is perforated with creeks just like the one used by the nuclear plant.

Oyster Creek generates about 10% of New Jersey's total electrical output (while creating zero air or water pollution), and three other nuclear reactors generate another 40%. Environmentalists want to shut all four down, immediately. To the extent that such an electricity deficit could be made up, it would probably mostly come from coal-burning plants in Pennsylvania. Such plants are notoriously dirty.

Oyster Creek has become a significant issue in New Jersey's gubernatorial race. Neither major party gubernatorial candidate will unequivocally endorse re-licensing (Senator Corzine initially did, but then backed off under pressure). Both Corzine and his Republican opponent Doug Forrester are currently supporting a hare-brained "independent study" to determine whether the plant is safe, even though the NRC performs just such a study every two years. (Conclusion: it's safe.)

What nobody's talking about is that the plant's real owner, Exelon, is involved in the construction of "pebble bed" nuclear reactors elsewhere around the world. The "pebble bed" is a reactor designed to function at temperatures too low for a "meltdown" to occur. Some hope that Exelon's extremely large Oyster Creek property will be chosen as the first U.S. site for a pebble bed reactor. Obviously it would be easier for that to happen if the site has a current nuclear operating license.

So there you have it, the future of nuclear power in the U.S. is tied up with small-town elections and corrupt New Jersey machine politics. It's not pretty, but I suppose it never is.

Posted by Sterling at 12:09 AM GMT

Good luck to your dad- if he's anything like you, he'd keep politics interesting.

I assume the town wants to keep the reactor running because it's a good source of jobs? But is there a local safety concern? Y'all aren't too far from Three Mile Island.

Also, doesn't a "no objection in principle" stance seem like weak support from a body that's supposed to supervise these sorts of sites? There seems to be an implied "but we don't expect you to fulfill the requirements" tagged to the end of that.

Posted by: mike on October 19, 2005 02:15 AM

I live in a high-smog environment. Most days the issue isn't whether you can see across the harbor: it's whether you can see the harbor. Pollution sources vary but the deterioration of Hong Kong's air quality has been quick and steep, and it that kind of rapid erosion doesn't happen because of fuel emissions. It happens because China's insatiable appetite for energy has forced it to reactivate cheap, coal-fired power plants throughout Guangdong Province over the past two or three years. As a result, Hong Kong's air quality has, in the past 18 months, suddenly shifted from so-so to, well, Beijing.

While the same fate is unlikely to befall central New Jersey if energy from a nuclear power plant is replaced by coal, there are undeniable environmental costs to fossil fuels - costs that I experience daily. Environmentalists have reasonable arguments against nuclear power, but I don't see how the planet can accommodate population and economic growth without it.

So I wish your dad good luck.

Posted by: Jame on October 19, 2005 11:22 AM

This is where the Twilight Zone joke goes.

Posted by: sac on October 19, 2005 03:32 PM

I think it's comparable to the B-52, another aging, heavy-industry product that is still trusted to handle very dangerous nuclear material. Like the B-52 fleet, Oyster Creek is periodically refitted with new control systems and nearly all its parts can and have been replaced. The few parts that can't be replaced were heavily overbuilt so that they would last nearly forever.

At the time of its construction I believe that actuaries estimated one meltdown in 50,000 years of operation with that design. That design and similar ones have never had a meltdown. And thanks to vastly improved control and monitoring systems, it's far safer now than it was when it went online in 1969.

The people in town are very comfortable with the plant. The improvements in control and monitoring tech has cut the workforce somewhat, down from about 700 people in the 70s to around 400 now. There are also two gas turbine plants on the same property, which runs from the Garden State Parkway to Barnegat Bay. Gas turbine is also a very clean power generation technology, but it's much less efficient than nuclear.

I don't think most people realize how little fuel it takes to run a reactor. Oyster Creek has fewer than 100 fuel rods in place at a time; the fuel rods are about as thick as a magic marker and about 10 or 12 feet long. And that's 1/10th of NJ's electrical output for 12 to 18 months. Versus coal or gas the efficiency is off the charts - the energy output of a ton of uranium is equivalent to that of about a million tons of coal.

Evacuation from a meltdown isn't the same as evacuation from a hurricane or flood or fire. In even the most severe meltdowns, residents would have a week or more to get away before receiving a harmful dose of radiation. It's length of exposure times degree of exposure that counts. And the degree of exposure is a function of the circumference of a circle, so if you get an exposure of X millirems at 1 mile's distance, you get .5 X at 2 miles' distance, etc.

The NRC doesn't object in principle to plants renewing their licenses. BUT the plant owners are expected to demonstrate that the plants can operate safely with an extension.

I admit this is not the best choice, but until utility companies are allowed to build new nuclear reactors, we're going to have to find a way to stretch more life out of existing ones.

Posted by: Sterling on October 19, 2005 03:45 PM

Do point us to any online environmentalist opposition to Oyster Creek, Sterling. I'm an environmentalist, but that doesn't mean that I oppose say GM crops or nuclear power ex ante. I can understand environmental opposition to building new nuclear power stations without any real idea of what should be done with them when they're decomissioned. But once a power station has been built the environmental costs of decomissioning it are going to be borne sooner or later anyway, and it's not clear to me why keeping it going longer is going to make much environmental difference. You rightly point out that nuclear energy is very clean while it's being produced, which is an argument for continuing to produce it once the power station is up and running. But at the same time I don't trust private companies like Exelon to sign off on the safety of their own reactors. Exactly what did the NRC say w/r/t the safety of the plant? Is their verdict online?

Posted by: Felix on October 19, 2005 04:29 PM

Felix, it's not companies like Exelon or Duke Power, etc. that sign off on the safety of the reactor, it's the NRC (fuel and fuel handling systems mainly) and the DOE (total safety processes and everything else.) I have been doing a great deal of research recently as some of my companies products are utilized in the CANDU (Heavy Deutrium) reactors. Trust me, they climb through everything with a fine tooth comb - extensive quality checks all of which at a minimum require ISO 9001 or greater Quality Systems. The DOE and the NRC also inspect the suppliers extensively.

Our machine has been running constantly in a reactor since the 80's, and has not failed. But, then again, it's American made quality, something we expect from every machine we send out the door. Sterling, you are right, they spec everything to be overbuilt.

Decommissioning is an issue, but companies like BWXT do a great job at it, reducing waste so that it leaves as little a permanent footprint as is possible.

Enviromentalists gnash their teeth and wring their hands about everything. Christ, they built a huge wind farm out here, and enviroweenies are complaining because it might fluff a couple of geese. Solar is the way to go, but the cost benefit is still not their despite the lowering of the costs.

Posted by: Sanford on October 19, 2005 05:35 PM

So what I'm looking for is (a) a link to these environmentalists of which you speak, so I can decide for myself which of their arguments are ridiculous and which might not be; and (b) a link to the NRC and DOE inspection reports, or failing that the NRC and DOE conclusions, so that I can be reassured that the NRC and DOE, after thoroughly inspecting Oyster Creek, have come to the verdict that it is perfectly safe. Also, does DHS examine private nuclear facilities to determine whether they've taken sufficient precautions against terrorist attack? Who signs off on the security at these places?

Posted by: Felix on October 19, 2005 05:50 PM

I'm not going to wade in on the Nuke issue, but as a comparator, reading the John McPhee article (two-parter recent in the New Yorker) certainly illumnates the relative scale of coal. The numbers are staggering. As a geeky aside, reading John McPhee (the DVD archive the New Yorker just released is a great deal) is much more interesting with Google Earth.

Posted by: 99 on October 19, 2005 10:04 PM

You got through both of those McPhee stories? I find him so boring...worthy, but dull. I got about a page into the first one before the yawns struck. I once battled through an entire 10-pager on fishing and decided that life was too precious to waste.

Posted by: Jame on October 20, 2005 08:34 AM

This is the main opposition site, Felix. It's a fusion of anti-development, environmentalist and cancer scare groups.

One group spent years collecting the baby teeth of people who gestated and were born within 30 miles of Oyster Creek (looking for Strontium-90, I think), but found no correlation whatsoever between proximity to the plant and concentration of the isotope in question. What they did find was a cluster in Brick Township, NJ, which is 25 miles north of the reactor and not downwind or downstream. This has cause Brick to go absolutely gonzo about closing the plant, even though it's almost inconceivable that the plant could be responsible for the Strontium-90 in their teeth.

People who were born and raised a few hundred feet from the Oyster Creek fenceline don't show any sign of it beyond what the nuclear industry predicted. And what that amounts to is a relatively low dose of radiation, similar to the amount you get from watching television or having a smoke detector in your house - and less than what you get flying from New York to Los Angeles. Understand that a slightly elevated background radiation environment is a radically different thing than heavy radioactive isotopes being released into the environment. There should be no measurable health consequences from such exposure, and there hasn't been.

I grew up two miles from the plant and my parents still live in that house. In high school science labs we had some radiology equipment that we used to measure the environmental effects of the plant. We never found a thing. Our counter indicated more radioactivity coming off an Apple IIe than standing at the front gate of the nuclear plant.

Posted by: Sterling on October 20, 2005 02:06 PM

Felix, check the Federal Register of the US Government daily if you want to find out what is really going on behind all those closed doors in Washington. The link is http://www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs/aces/fr-cont.html.

Here is the only hit from this year on Oyster Creek:


Long and the short is, they have a license to operate until April of 2009, and have put in for another license for 20 additional years. Nothing hit for concerns, safety issues, etc. at least not that I could find.

Next, don't confuse the topic, which you seem to be doing. I never said this plant or that is or is not safe, what I said was that the DOE and the NRC require a high level of internal security, multiple layers of safety nets which must be inspected at prescribed schedules, maintainance logs of all machinery, etc. It's not some little walk in the park for these companies to own, opperate, or sell to nuclear facilities. Nuclear power is better than anything else we have right now it seems.

Here's a little bit of what the NRC requires, http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/cfr/

That CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) is fairly exhaustive. As our product is not regulated by the DOE, I don't have much direction for you there. Check out DOE.gov and you should be able to dig up your own answers.

Posted by: Sanford on October 20, 2005 05:41 PM

I'm a infrastructure geek, and don't find the pacing tiresome. I avoid the fishing ones as well, and parts of the Atchafalaya piece were a little distracting (I find the relentless adherence of the house style of introduction -- historical/topical digression -- return to current day discussion a little repetitive at times). There was an piece from the 80's about Debris Basins for the San Gabriels that was great, and one about recycling rubber (that also, admittedly, was much more concise and effective because of it) that I really liked. Look, I thought the one last year about the tugs on the Mississippi was fun. But I also stop to look at construction holes in the ground.

Posted by: 99 on October 20, 2005 07:05 PM

Hey Felix, here's an example of what the NRC does when a nuclear facility is not being run and or maintained safely. http://a257.g.akamaitech.net/7/257/2422/01jan20051800/edocket.access.gpo.gov/2005/pdf/E5-6272.pdf

Cold shut-down is exactly what it sounds like, and they do this from time to time when a facility is not run correctly and more importantly, safely.

Posted by: Sanford on November 15, 2005 02:45 PM

I know this dicussion is from over ago but I came upon it and found it very informative and interesting. I don't have a position on this issue but but thought this would lend some balance to the discussion; here is a link to the environmental reasons for closure as given by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Division of Water Quality on 10/25/05:

Posted by: Ida on October 29, 2006 06:31 PM

Ida, that's all propaganda. Oyster Creek generates about 10% of the electrical power output of the State of New Jersey, and the only "pollutant" it releases into the environment is hot water.

Are there negative consequences to releasing hot water into Barnegat Bay? There surely are, but they are minor - wooden dock damage as a result of invading warm-water aquatic worms is about the worst of it.

Posted by: Sterling on October 30, 2006 12:12 AM