The Oyster Creek Generating Station in Lacey Township, the nation’s oldest active nuclear plant, will close in just a few weeks. Then it will be decommissioned — dismantled, the site decontaminated and the still radioactive spent fuel rods stored.
At first, it looked like the decommissioning would take longer than the 50 years the plant produced electricity. Owner Exelon Generation announced a 60-year plan.
Then late last month, Exelon announced it would sell the closed plant to Camden-based Holtec International to handle the decommissioning. Incredibly, Holtec said it planned to decommission Oyster Creek and restore the site in just eight years.
But when the details came out last week, it turned out Holtec would decontaminate and demolish the buildings on site in eight years, and spent fuel rods would have to remain until 2034. The company did not specify how long it would take after they are removed to return the site to full use. If it could happen in the 2030s instead of 2080, that would be a bit benefit. Instead of the 779-acre property spending the next six decades in various stages of decontamination and undermining area growth and property values, it might become a lucrative redevelopment site itself in less than two decades. If there were delays and it took 30 years, it would still be a major improvement.
There are a bunch of legitimate questions and concerns about the sale of the plant and the rapid decommissioning plan.
A fast schedule automatically suggests that not as much care might be taken on very important work. Holtec itself hasn’t done a plant decommissioning before, although it wants to enter that business and has three decades experience making casks for storing nuclear waste. It would use a complex of subsidiaries and joint ventures to carry out the work. There’s almost $1 billion in a trust fund to pay for the decommissioning, which looks like a tempting sum to many.
Thankfully, providing answers and reassurance on these and many other aspects of the decommissioning is the job of the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The NRC has the mandate, expertise and experience to ensure that the decommissioning is properly conducted and successful. It won’t approve the sale to Holtec if it’s not sure the plan is feasible.
Last week, the NRC reassured the public it would maintain ongoing oversight of the facility whether it is sold or remains with Exelon. It will oversee disbursements from the trust fund and watch closely to make sure they’re spent on decommissioning activities and not for other purposes.
The NRC is already handling this responsibility for six other plants that are in active decommissioning. It has overseen 14 others that have transitioned into safe long-term storage condition. It deserves the confidence of the public that it can do the job at Oyster Creek.
That said, decommissioning the plant in less than half the normal time is at best a hope at this point.
Holtec’s plan would depend in part on getting the spent and still radioactive uranium into dry storage casks of a new design much more quickly. An NRC official said he was unaware of an approved cask that would allow such a quick schedule.
More importantly, Holtec would move the spent fuel from Oyster Creek and two other plants to an interim storage facility it is seeking to build in New Mexico. That would require Congress and the U.S. Department of Energy “to provide necessary funding to transport and store the used fuel from Oyster Creek and the other sites to New Mexico,” the company said.
That could make sense and help with the dozen other nuclear plants that will close by 2025. But since the federal government hasn’t even been able to finish the permanent storage site for nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, an interim storage site and the transport of the waste to it is far from certain.
We hope that a shorter decommissioning is possible and happens. We think it’s a long shot. We trust that if it does, the NRC will ensure it is done right.