Reactor isn't aging gracefully

Asbury Park Press

May 2, 2009

One week after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission declared, despite evidence to the contrary, that the 40-year-old Oyster Creek nuclear reactor was fit as a fiddle and licensed it for another 20 years, the plant immediately began showing signs of its age.

Those signs are disturbing, not only because the plant isn't getting any younger, but because they strongly suggest the NRC review of the plant was far less than exhaustive and its aging management plan sorely deficient.

The problems began about two weeks ago with the discovery of radioactive tritium at levels five times greater than the EPA's limits for drinking water in a monitoring well on the property. One week ago, plant workers shut down the reactor after one of its main transformers failed. The transformer, which had been used previously at another site, had been installed in February as a replacement.

On Wednesday, plant and federal officials announced that levels of tritium up to 300 times higher than the federal standard were found in four of the five monitoring wells that had been dug to help zero in on the source of the tritium leaks. A plant spokesman said holes in two pipes in the maze of below-ground piping that is part of Oyster Creek's water management system were discovered and repaired. State environmental officials said Thursday that inspections were ongoing and they were determining whether there were any violations of state pollution regulations.

No assurances were given that all the sources of the contamination, which has entered the aquifer, had been identified. Plant officials and the state said there was no evidence the contamination has migrated off-site or into the discharge canal leading into Barnegat Bay. But there is no guarantee it will remain on-site. In the meantime, the plant remains shut down and will stay out of operation until state and federal officials are satisfied the situation is under control.

If the activists who have been gamely fighting Oyster Creek's continued operation were wavering about whether to go to court to appeal the NRC's relicensing of the plant before all the relevant concerns about its safety and the rigor of its aging management plan were addressed, the recent breakdowns at the plant should make the decision easy.

At the same time, Gov. Jon Corzine should instruct his Department of Environmental Protection to use every means necessary, including litigation, to ensure the plant is being safely operated. And freshman Rep. John Adler, D-N.J., who stated during his campaign that if the NRC declares the plant is safe, it must be safe, needs to start making independent judgments about the risks posed by Oyster Creek and begin clamoring for further scrutiny of the NRC's relicensing process.

It's too early to tell just how serious the tritium leaks are. But it's evident the NRC has failed to adequately inspect many of the critical components of the reactor — particularly those beneath ground. Corzine, the DEP and New Jersey's congressional representatives must insist the plant remain closed until more rigorous inspections of the plant's key systems are conducted and an independent analysis of the adequacy of the plant's aging management plan has been performed.