An aerial photo of Oyster Creek Generating Station in Lacey Township. Michael Ein

LACEY TOWNSHIP — The Oyster Creek nuclear plant will be around long after it closes in 2019, judging by papers its owner filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Exelon Corp. on Thursday announced it will close the plant by the end of 2019 instead of building a pricy cooling tower that state regulators had required as a condition of a water permit.

Exelon submitted a tentative game plan for shutting down the plant in 2009 in the event the NRC did not renew its operating license. Later that year, Oyster Creek won a 20-year license renewal.

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But according to its decommissioning plan, the company said it would wait as long as 60 years to dismantle the plant so that nuclear material will have time to decay. Exelon chose the long-term method of commissioning, known in the nuclear industry as the SAFSTOR method, in which the plant would be locked down and decontaminated at a later date.

The alternative is immediate dismantling, known in the industry as the DECON method, which has its own benefits and complications, NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said.

Exelon has collected more than $651 million in a special fund to pay for the cleanup of radioactive material. This does not include the cost to dismantle the hulking superstructure surrounding the reactor.

By comparison, a new cooling tower would cost as much as $800 million, Exelon said.

“It obviously has to be handled with great care,” Sheehan said. “There are strict requirements for handling the plant. There are pros and cons for immediate dismantlement.”

If a plant is dismantled quickly, it becomes available for other uses and eliminates the need for maintenance, the NRC said. It also usually ends up costing less in the long run. But waiting longer to dismantle the plant would create less exposure risk to radiation since low-level materials such as tritium degrade quickly.

Exelon spokesman Marshall Murphy said the company does not have to make a decision about how it will decommission the plant for several years.

“It’s too early to commit to a decommissioning plan,” he said. “In 2014, we’ll look at the options available to us.”

Since Oyster Creek sells its energy to the market, Exelon is not obligated to replace the 625 megawatts of power that New Jersey will lose.

DEP Commissioner Bob Martin on Thursday said he expects rival energy companies to fill the void by building new natural-gas power plants in southern New Jersey.

“We are in initial discussions with several companies interested in building additional power in the state — probably combined-cycle gas plants,” he said.

Proposed solar projects and offshore wind farms will meet some future demand.

“But for baseload generation, we’ll need one or maybe two generating stations,” he said. “I would entertain something on site or even next door to the plant.”

Oyster Creek could be repurposed for some other form of electric generation. But Exelon’s Murphy said the company has no immediate plans to pursue a new plant there.

“We’re focused on operating the plant here until 2019. As to other options for power generation, we’re not looking at those options for this site right now,” he said.

Meanwhile, Lacey Township officials said they are worried about how the plant’s announced closing will affect the tax base. The plant pays for more than 42 percent of the township’s annual expenses.

“Of course we’re concerned,” Township Administrator Veronica Laureigh said. “We receive $11 million per year in Energy Receipts Taxes for our $26 million annual budget.”

Closing the plant would not automatically cut into this contribution. Instead, the state Legislature would have to vote on any changes.

The plant also pays about $2 million per year in taxes on property assessed at about $41 million.

But Laureigh said the plant’s influence in the township extends far beyond the tax rolls.

“We’re going to lose 700 to 800 jobs. It will be a loss to the entire economy of Ocean County,” she said. “We just went through a plant outage where more than 1,000 people were hired for various work at the plant. That added a lot to the community.”

That work includes maintenance, repairs and other contracted duties that can only be performed when the plant is shut down.

In a statement, U.S. Rep.-elect John Runyan, R-3rd, said the plant’s closing will have a major impact on the township.

“While I appreciate both the environmental and financial factors that led to the compromise announced today, I am deeply concerned about the hundreds of local residents who will lose their jobs and the potential for a massive property tax increase on Lacey Township homeowners when the $14 million in revenue the plant provides to the township disappears,” he said.

Runyan said he plans to meet with township officials to talk about how to address the gap in funding provided by the plant.

Exelon has also been a generous contributor to local charities, Laureigh said. Just this week, several out-of-state vendors that work with Exelon contributed $1,000 each to the Lacey Township food bank at the company’s urging, she said.

PSEG Nuclear is planning to build New Jersey’s fifth and — if a twin-reactor system is employed — perhaps sixth nuclear reactor on Artificial Island in Salem County, according to NRC filings. Exelon Corp, which is part-owner of the Salem 1 and Salem 2 plants, would not comment on whether it will be part of that venture.

PSEG spokesman Joseph Delmar said it hopes to win a 20-year license renewal for all three of its nuclear plants by June.

Hope Creek was built with a cooling tower. Delmar said the Salem units have far less environmental impact on the Delaware estuary than Oyster Creek has on the Barnegat Bay.

“We believe research over the last 30 years shows there is no adverse impact to the environment or the Delaware estuary since the station became operational,” he said. “We’ve made significant improvements to our intake structure. We have the best technology available. Our estuary-enhancement programs have restored 20,000 acres of wetlands to promote aquatic life.”

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