State reps hear testimony on Oyster Creek operation


Staff Writer

A room filled with state assemblymen, mayors, council members, union workers, environmentalists and other concerned citizens met to discuss the possible license extension for the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant Dec. 2.

And five representatives from the sate Assembly’s Environment and Solid Waste committee left the meeting in Brick Township knowing one thing for sure — there was still a lot of research to do before they passed a resolution calling for the plant to be shut down or supporting a license renewal.

Oyster Creek sits on an 800-acre tract in the Forked River section of Lacey Township. It has been in operation since 1969 and is the oldest large-scale commercial nuclear reactor in the United States. Exelon Corp. is expected to apply for a 20-year license extension to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to keep the plant running until 2029. The plant’s current license expires in 2009.

At the beginning of the meeting, Assemblyman John F. McKeon (D-West Orange), the chair of the Environment and Solid Waste Committee, said that while the committee has no official role in deciding the fate of the plant, it needs to let the federal government know where it stands.

The committee first heard from three supporters of Oyster Creek — including the site’s president, Bud Swenson, and the vice president of Exelon’s regional office, Bill Levis.

“I am committed to making sure Oyster Creek operates with the highest level of security,” Swenson said, noting that the plant has made $20 million worth of security improvements in last few years.

According to Levis, the plant has to pass rigorous reviews before the NRC makes a decision on the license.

“Safe and secure nuclear power plant operation is of highest priority for our company,” Levis said.

Nuclear power provides 50 percent of the electricity in the state and Oyster Creek provides electricity for more than 600,000 homes, Levis said. He added that the plant’s evacuation plan was graded by the NRC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) two times in the past four years and each time it was approved.

After Exelon executives offered to host a site visit for the committee members, McKeon said they would welcome the opportunity.

Assemblyman Robert Gordon (D-Bergen County) questioned the Exelon executives and said he was concerned about the use of sirens and emergency broadcasts to let people know if there was an accident or an attack at Oyster Creek.

“I have to say that, frankly, I was aghast that you’re still relying on sirens and emergency broadcast,” Gordon said.

He said he believes there are better technologies available to notify residents of an emergency at the plant.

Swenson and Levis said they would look into other modes of emergency notification.

All five Democratic members of the committee were present at the meeting — McKeon, Gordon, Michael J. Panter (D-Monmouth, Mercer), Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) and Louis Manzo (D-Hudson). John E. Rooney (R-Bergen) and Larry Chatzidakis (R-Burlington) were unable to attend and sent staff representatives who took notes during the proceedings.

Brick Mayor Joseph Scarpelli, a Democrat, was the first opposition voice to testify before the committee during the public meeting.

“By you being here this evening, you have shown that this is a regional issue,” the mayor said.

Scarpelli said he thinks the Oyster Creek plant should be shut down and changed to a renewable energy source.

“I believe the changeover to a renewable source is not as difficult as you may have heard,” he said.

Paul Brush, the mayor of Dover Township, said he was speaking for himself and not his township and he agreed that the nuclear plant should be shut down.

“I think the age of the plant is the primary concern,” Brush said.

Numerous union representatives were present at the meeting. Among them, Wyatt Earp, president of the Monmouth-Ocean counties AFL-CIO labor union, said the men and women who work at the plant are disturbed by the discussion about shutting it down.

“We’re talking about relicensing a facility that’s never had an accident,” Earp said. “We should wait for the NRC to do their job.”

Bud Thaon, a business agent for Local 1294 and a resident of Brick, said “the call to close Oyster Creek comes way too early.”

He said the plant has met the requirements of the NRC and deserves the right to compete for relicensing.

“Don’t confuse a lack of perfection with a lack of safety,” Thaon said.

“If the plant is allowed to operate for another 20 years it will only become more prone to accidents,” said Suzanne Leta, energy associate with the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group.

In their closing statements, the assemblymen said they were concerned about security and while they may not be able to decide if the plant should stay open or not, they can work with other government agencies on the evacuation plan.

McKeon suggested holding a joint hearing with the Homeland Security Commit-tee in Trenton.

Following the meeting, McKeon said he has not made a decision to support or oppose the plant’s relicensing.

But because of the meeting, McKeon said he realized a couple things. First, that “people are directly affected” by the decision to keep the plant open or shut it down, referring to the plant employees who attended the meeting. He said that all members on the committee realize that the employees are skilled, professional individuals. McKeon said he also learned more about the environmental concerns.

The committee will hold another meeting about the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant in Lacey Township soon, McKeon said.

The Brick Township Council passed a resolution in March that opposed the plant’s relicensing and called for its immediate closure and decommissioning. To date, 13 municipalities in Ocean County seek an immediate closure of the reactor and four just oppose its relicensing. Former Gov. James E. McGreevey and other state officials, such as state Sen. Robert Singer (R-Ocean), also oppose relicensing.

Lacey Township supports the plant’s relicensing.