In recent years, no issue in southern Ocean County generated as much controversy - and passion - as the relicensing process for the aging Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station.

The plant went online in 1969, making it the oldest operating nuclear power plant in the nation. Environmentalists have long said the plant's age makes it unsafe. Supporters of the plant focused instead on the needed jobs - and electricity - it generates. The battle was long and bitter, but in April 2009, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted Oyster Creek a new 20-year license.

The controversy never went away, however.

Detractors point to a leak of tritium-contaminated water that Exelon, the plant's owner, is now cleaning up. And the state Department of Environmental Protection continued to insist that the plant build expensive cooling towers to replace a system that involves sucking 1.4 billion gallons of water a day from Barnegat Bay to cool the power plant, a process that kills large numbers of shrimp, fish, crabs and clams.

Something had to give. And last week, it did. Exelon announced it would shut down Oyster Creek in 2019 - 10 years earlier than planned. And in return for the expedited shutdown, the state will drop its demand that cooling towers be built. The deal is part of a major initiative by Gov. Chris Christie's administration to clean up Barnegat Bay.

At least one official in Lacey Township, where the plant is located, says the early closing is a shame. But environmentalists continue to say it's a shame that the plant isn't closing immediately, or at least building the cooling towers.

But to us, the agreement to close the plant 10 years before its license expires seems to be a reasonable resolution to the issue.

The cooling towers were simply never going to happen. Exelon insisted the cooling towers would cost more than the plant is worth and at one point said it would rather shut the plant than build the towers.

Now, this aging plant will go offline 10 years earlier than expected, and that's enough of a win. And at least under this deal, officials will have ample time to plan for the damage to the local economy caused by the loss of the plant.

The Sierra Club insists - somewhat unfairly, in our opinion - that the Christie administration has put Exelon's interests ahead of Barnegat Bay by allowing the plant to operate without cooling towers for another nine years. But another nine years is better than another 19 years.

The environmental group does, however, raise one issue that should be addressed:

Nine years from now, Chris Christie will not be governor, and Oyster Creek will still have a valid license to operate for another 10 years. The state needs to ensure that it has a rock-solid legal agreement that can, in fact, be enforced nine years from now and require Exelon or its successors to shut down the plant.

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