In the news

NJPIRG Law and Policy Center
Press of Atlantic City
Sarah Watson

A New Jersey public advocacy group is calling for the Obama administration to impose a moratorium on re-licensing aging nuclear power plants and permitting new ones. The group also is calling for a comprehensive safety overview of the nation's existing 104 plants.

Trenton-based New Jersey Public Interest Research Group released a report documenting the "near miss" incidents at reactors since 1990, incidents that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission considered a "significant precursor" to damaging the reactor core.

The report also listed a number of radiation leaks from plants, including tritium leaks from plants such as Oyster Creek in Lacey Township, Ocean County, and Salem nuclear plants in Alloways Creek, Salem County, problems the group said are indicative of aging plants.

"Let's take a break here and digest the problems of Fukushima before one, allowing the plants to run for another 20 years, and two, considering building a new one," said Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear industry worker and current environmental advocate with Vermont-based Fairewinds Associates, who spoke during the report's release.

The report was released four days after the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection announced it was forming a nuclear task force to conduct a thorough assessment of operations and emergency plans for the state's four nuclear reactors. The goal, DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said, was to determine whether any early lessons from the Fukushima incident could be learned or implemented.

"With an issue this important, it doesn't hurt to have everybody taking a look at our reactors and making sure that everything is fine. We're confident that our reactors are in good shape and designed to meet federal criteria for disasters, but that said, this is a good opportunity for us to really revisit them and re-evaluate everything from top to bottom," he said.

"The NRC takes all natural disaster scenarios into consideration at the time when it determines the design criteria, but at the same time, it's incumbent on us to take a fresh look at these plants and look for any ... that may have been overlooked 30 to 40 years ago," he said.

The Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear complex in Japan has six reactors and suffered catastrophic cooling failures after a tsunami took out the plant's backup diesel generators. The power was critical to maintaining the cooling needed to keep the nuclear reactors stable. The subsequent explosions and radioactive steam releases forced Japanese officials to evacuate a 30-mile radius around the plant and radiation has been detected as far east as California and Idaho. The affected Fukushima reactors all are Mark 1 boiling water reactors, the same type as the Oyster Creek Nuclear Power Plant , and Hope Creek Nuclear Generating Station in Salem County.

Oyster Creek is the oldest operating reactor in the U.S. and was re-licensed two years ago. Shortly after its re-licensing was approved by the NRC, a tritium leak was discovered. A small amount of tritium reached the aquifer and was an indication that the plant's infrastructure was aging, Gundersen said.

Nuclear power plants are built to withstand natural disasters and designed with safety measures in mind for those types of events occurring individually, the NJPIRG report said. "But when nuclear power plants are hit with multiple challenges simultaneously - as occurred with the earthquake and tsunami at Fukushima, Japan - or when one challenge cascades into another in unpredictable ways, a manageable situation can become a catastrophe in a heartbeat."

The report also calls for eliminating federal subsidies and loan guarantees for power plants and instead use the money for lower risk types of energy such as wind and solar power.

Gundersen said the federal government and nuclear power plants need to examine the "single point of vulnerability," or one weakness that can cause a catastrophic failure. In particular, he said, all plants have service water pumps that draw critical cooling water to cool the reactor's core. If those pumps are damaged or destroyed by floods, storm surges or a tsunami, then that could create a similar situation to what is occurring in Japan, he said.

Exelon spokeswoman April Schilpp said she had not read the NJPIRG report, but the company and the individual power plants, including Oyster Creek, will "implement any appropriate changes that are deemed necessary after a really thorough study of what actually happened in Japan."

The incident still is ongoing and critical information still is being gathered about the causes of the problems, she said, but the company and industry already are examining various safety systems and procedures.

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