New Jersey, the most densely populated state and home to the nation’s oldest nuclear power plant, created a task force Friday to review safety and emergency response plans at nuclear plants in light of the disaster unfolding in Japan.
The state Department of Environmental Protection appointed the panel, composed of homeland security, state police and utility officials. It will start work next week and plans to visit the 41-year-old Oyster Creek plant in Lacey Township, as well as the three reactors in Lower Alloways Township in Salem County, called Hope Creek and Salem I and II.
Oyster Creek is a General Electric reactor, similar to the Fukushima Daiichi complex in Japan, whose reactors were damaged by an earthquake and tsunami that knocked out power to cooling systems, allowing radiation to escape. The same boiling-water reactor design at the Japanese plants is also used at Hope Creek.
“We want to ensure all proper safety protocols and preventative measures are in place to protect the residents of New Jersey from ever having to experience a nuclear emergency,” Gov. Chris Christie said. “There may be lessons to be learned from what is happening in Japan that could make our preparedness even better and make the state’s residents more secure. We have an obligation to explore those facts and will make necessary adjustments to our safety plans as appropriate.”
Exelon Corp. and PSE&G, which own the reactors, have pledged to participate in the reviews. In December, Exelon and the state reached a deal to close Oyster Creek in 2019, 10 years earlier than called for under its current license.
Potential impacts from reactors in neighboring Pennsylvania and New York also will be examined.
Oyster Creek went online Dec. 1, 1969, the same day as the Nine Mile Point Nuclear Generating Station near Oswego, N.Y. But Oyster Creek’s original license was granted first, technically making it the oldest of the nation’s 104 commercial nuclear reactors that are still operating.
It has had problems including leaks of radioactive tritium from underground pipes, as well as malfunctioning electrical components. Environmentalists also say the metal containment liner has worn too thin, but Exelon and the NRC say the plant can be operated safely.
The early shutdown deal was reached to let the plant avoid having to build costly cooling towers that New Jersey officials insisted upon to vastly reduce the number of fish and small marine creatures the plant’s operations kill each year.
Located about 60 miles east of Philadelphia and 75 miles south of New York City, Oyster Creek generates 636 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 600,000 homes a year, and provides 9 percent of New Jersey’s electricity.
The task force will explore emergency response plans at all the state’s reactors, technical reviews of plant operations, the chain of command and control at each nuclear facility, evacuation plans, and plans for emergency communications to the public.
Led by DEP Commissioner Robert Martin, the task force includes Charles McKenna, the state’s homeland security and preparedness director; State Police Superintendent Col. Rick Fuentes, and Lee Solomon, president of the state Board of Public Utilities. It will submit a written report to Christie once the review is completed.
“We already have an excellent response system in place, one that is continuously updated as we gather new science and facts,” Martin said. “We also have excellent cooperation from the owners of nuclear facilities in our state. But you can never be too prepared. If there are lessons for New Jersey from what is happening in Japan, we should draw from that information.”
The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires nuclear plants to meet federal specifications to withstand natural disasters, such as earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis.
In Japan, it was not so much the force of the earthquake but rather water from the tsunami that inundated the plant and knocked out crucial electrical and backup power systems to run cooling systems. The fires and explosions believed to have been caused by uncooled nuclear fuel have released high amounts of radiation into the atmosphere, and the situation still has not been brought under control nearly two weeks later.
The DEP said backup generators and fuel supplies at New Jersey’s reactors “are far better protected than at facilities now in jeopardy in Japan.”
The agency also added, “There is virtually no possibility of a tsunami striking New Jersey.”
It said no radiation levels “of concern” have reached the U.S. or New Jersey. But radiation monitors from California to Virginia have measured trace amounts of radiation from the Japanese accident.
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