LOWER ALLOWAYS CREEK TOWNSHIP — A project to construct at least one more nuclear reactor here won an environmental approval this week from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but still remains years away from construction, and may not happen as long as fossil fuels are cheap.

The NRC approved an environmental impact review to add a fourth reactor, and possibly a fifth, to the Salem Nuclear Generating Station, said Neil Sheehan, spokesman for the agency.

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Salem Nuclear has three reactors overlooking the Delaware River that can generate power for 3 million homes.

Public Service Electric & Gas owns the single-reactor Hope Creek Nuclear Generating Station and 57 percent of the two reactors at the Salem Nuclear Generating Station, with Exelon Corp. owning the other 43 percent.

Sheehan said PSE&G is not committed to building even one reactor, but could construct two under the Early Site Permit, or ESP, it applied for. The utility applied in 2010 when fossil fuels were much more expensive.

“We’re seeing nuclear power plants closing right now. There could be an abundance of natural gas for years to come,” said Sheehan.

PSE&G spokesman Joe Delmar said planning began as early as 2008, when the economics were more favorable.

“With all the fracking and gas right now, it doesn’t make sense,” said Delmar.

But nuclear plants are planned decades in advance, due to the long approval process. Those approvals are also in place for decades into the future, so if the economic climate changes, no new permits would be needed.

“We’re doing the ESP first and make a construction decision in the future,” Delmar said.

The utility still needs more permits to construct, and Sheehan said there will be a public hearing in April before the Atomic Safety Licensing Board.

The EIS approval came under immediate attack from the New Jersey Sierra Club.

“We believe this project is the wrong project, in the wrong place, and will actually undermine New Jersey’s ability to promote renewable energy. This is not an Environmental Impact Statement, this is a whitewash. NRC is not a regulatory commission; they are a rubber stamp for the nuclear industry and never met a project they didn’t like,” said Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel.

Besides potentially undermining alternative energy, such as offshore wind turbines, which Tittel equates to “driving a Dodge Dart in the age of a Tesla,” he questions the site on Artificial Island. He said the island made of dredged materials is already subject to flooding at high tides while storm surges are becoming worse and more frequent.

“The EIS is woefully inadequate because it does not address climate change, sea level rise and storm surges. This is a very vulnerable area,” said Tittel.

Delmar noted the NRC approval specifically approved the site as suitable from both the safety and environmental perspectives. He noted construction is designed to handle a Category 4 hurricane.

“We feel confident the location is suitable and safe for a new reactor,” said Delmar.

Early estimates call for a $14 billion project. Delmar said this would create 4,000 construction jobs, while the plant would add 400 to 700 permanent jobs. The facility is already the largest employer in Salem County, with 1,500 jobs.

Tittel argues expanding the facility will have major effects on water quality, fisheries, migratory birds, and wetlands.

Delmar said no pristine wetlands would be affected. The utility hopes to acquire 537 acres of degraded wetlands and 94 acres that is a dredge spoils disposal site. It is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on wetlands impacts.

Delmar said they would not build on the 20,000 acres of wetlands restored in the area, part of which has been a tradeoff for not constructing cooling towers for the Salem plants. Environmental groups have long complained that the lack of cooling towers results in killing marine life as river water is sucked in to cool the plant. The law has changed, and any new plant must have a cooling tower.

The news comes at a time when one of the state’s reactors, Oyster Creek in Ocean County, is slated to close in 2019. The three reactors in Salem County are licensed to 2036, 2040, and 2046.

Contact: 609-463-6711

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35 years with The Press of Atlantic City, the Asbury Park Press and other newspapers.

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