20 September 2018

Oldest US Reactor, Oyster Creek, Closed at Age 49

Oldest US Reactor, Oyster Creek, Closed at Age 49

WNISR, 20 September 2018

The Exelon Generation Company announced 17 September 2018 that it had taken the 49-year old Oyster Creek reactor off line for the last time. The shutdown of the first commercial General Electric MK1 Boiling Water Reactor (BWR), which began operation in 1969 and is located in Ocean County, New Jersey, marked the closure of the oldest reactor in the U.S. fleet. Exelon remains the largest single operator of nuclear plants in the United States. The closure reduces the U.S. operating fleet to 98 reactors, still by far the largest fleet in the world.

In February 2018, Exelon announced Oyster Creek would permanently shut down in autumn 2018 at the end of its current operating cycle. Exelon was required to close Oyster Creek no later than December 2019 as part of an agreement with the State of New Jersey.

Opposition to Oyster Creek over the decades has centered on multiple safety hazards at the plant. More recently, in 2015, it was revealed that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) had given Exelon an exemption from complying with its Fukushima “lessons learned order”, including the installation of a containment hardened vent-system. Oyster Creek, like the Fukushima Daiichi unit 1 reactor, operated with a containment system that was not designed to withstand a severe accident. Exelon had argued that since the reactor was only operating for two more cycles it was not necessary to install the hardened vent system.

Opponents to Oyster Creek had also long campaigned to have cooling towers installed at the plant to replace the direct discharge of heated cooling water into the Atlantic ocean. In January 2010, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection required the plant to build one or more closed-cycle cooling towers instead of relying on water drawn from the Oyster Creek to cool the reactor. Exelon had long resisted the move due to the estimated US$800 million cost, which at the time Exelon said was more than the reactors were worth. In December 2010, twelve months after the new regulations were adopted, Associated Press reported for the first time that agreement had been reached between Exelon and New Jersey state officials that the plant would not be required to install a closed cooling system, but would close 10 years ahead of schedule in 2019.

The financial challenges at Oyster Creek only increased in recent years. The reactor was not eligible for financial support through the New Jersey state Zero Emission Credits (ZEC), as to be eligible, nuclear plants need to be licensed through 2030. In 2009, the NRC granted the plant a 20-year license extension to 2029. In 2015, Exelon had announced that Oyster Creek (along with two other plants) had not cleared the PJM Capacity Auction for 2018/19 having been outbid on lower cost electricity supply—principally gas and renewables. The PJM Interconnection [Pennsylvania-New Jersey-Maryland Interconnection LLC], is a regional transmission organization (RTO) that coordinates the movement of wholesale electricity in all or parts of New Jersey and other states.

In July 2018, Exelon announced a conditional sale of Oyster Creek to Holtec International, with the transaction expected to be completed in 2019, pending license transfer approval from the NRC. Once the sale is completed, Holtec International will manage all site decommissioning and restoration activities with a goal of full decommissioning within eight years. This is in contrast to a decommissioning schedule submitted to the NRC only in May 2018 that put the plant in Safstor (safe storage condition) for more than fifty years with principal decommissioning to begin from 2073 and be completed by 2077.