Oyster Creek Will Close Sept. 17; Fuel Could Remain at Site for 60 Years

Officials with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on July 2 said Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station, the country’s oldest operating nuclear power plant, will officially close on September 17. They also said radioactive material is likely to remain at the site in New Jersey until at least the late 2070s, and perhaps beyond.

The NRC on Monday held a briefing to discuss the shutdown and decommissioning plan for Oyster Creek, which opened in 1969. Officials said Chicago-based Exelon, which owns the 650-MW single-reactor plant on the Jersey Shore about 60 miles east of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in Orange County, will take the remaining nuclear fuel rods from storage pools and place them into dry storage likely by mid-year 2024, or within about 5½ years after the plant closes.

NRC officials said it will cost about $1.4 billion to close the plant. They said Exelon at present has $982.1 million in a decommissioning account. A public hearing to discuss the decommissioning plan is set for July 17.

Neil Sheehan, an NRC spokesman, said finding a new home for the spent nuclear fuel from Oyster Creek is not presently an option. “There is no national repository for spent fuel at this point,” said Sheehan on Monday. “The only option for operators is to store the spent nuclear fuel on site.”

Sheehan said the NRC is considering proposals for national nuclear waste depositories in Texas or New Mexico, but no decision has been reached. Some members of Congress, along with the Trump administration, have renewed a push to revive a plan to store nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Congress in 1987 chose Yucca Mountain to become the nation’s permanent repository for nuclear waste generated by power plants and the military. The federal government has spent $15 billion researching the site; the Department of Energy (DOE) began pursuing a license for Yucca Mountain in 2008. The project was stopped in 2011 due to opposition from political leaders in Nevada and local residents. Yucca Mountain sits about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas in a remote part of the Mojave Desert.

Ray Powell, a decommissioning official with the NRC, on Monday said Exelon has moved nuclear fuel rods into 34 dry-storage units, or casks, which are steel containers encased in concrete. The casks are designed to store nuclear material while its radioactivity decreases over time. Power said another 40 casks will be filled with the remaining fuel rods after Oyster Creek closes.

The NRC said Oyster Creek will be in a “safe store” condition until 2075. They said dismantling of the plant should occur between 2075 and 2078. Exelon spokeswoman Suzanne D’Ambrosio, though, said “the timeline could be much shorter” as the company proceeds with the decommissioning.

“The used fuel will be stored on site in robust metal canisters housed in a massive concrete housing,” D’Ambrosio said. “The storage facility is highly secured, and the casks are impervious to weather and risk of attack. The canisters emit very low, if any, measurable levels of radiation, and they present no danger to the public.”

Oyster Creek began operating Dec. 1, 1969. The Nine Mile Point Nuclear Generating Station in Scriba, New York, also began operating that day, but Oyster Creek’s license was issued first.

Exelon in 2010 reached an agreement with the state of New Jersey to close Oyster Creek by December 2019, 10 years earlier than its operating license required, after Exelon decided not to install costly cooling tower technology required by New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection. Exelon in February said it would move up the closure to the end of the plant’s current operating cycle in October, with the date now set for September 17. The plant in May filed notice of layoffs in advance of the closure with New Jersey’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).