Early closure for Oyster Creek

09 December 2010

The Oyster Creek nuclear power plant will close early without building cooling towers, owner Exelon has said after negotiating on water use legislation with the state of New Jersey. 


Despite getting regulatory approval to operate until 2029, the 610 MWe Oyster Creek reactor is now set for closure sometime in 2019. This is "the best option for the company, employees and shareholders," said Exelon chief operating officer Chris Crane, because "the plant faces a unique set of economic conditions and changing environmental regulations."


The boiling water reactor was completed in December 1969 and has so far generated over 152 billion units of electricity. It uses water from two rivers in a system of once-through cooling that discharges slightly warmer water into canal connected to Barnegat Bay, New Jersey.


Oyster Creek (Exelon)
Oyster Creek (Image: Exelon)
After examining Exelon's application to operate beyond 2009, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission concluded that the environmental impact of further operation on river life would be 'moderate' as long as the density of life and mix of species in Barnegat Bay had not changed substantially since studies made in the 1970s and 1980s. Exelon maintains that a 2008 study showed the situation had not changed.


Nevertheless, in January this year the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) revised rules on water use such that once-through cooling is no longer allowed for large industrial facilities like power plants. To protect river life, Oyster Creek - as well as several other coal and nuclear power plants in the state - would have to build cooling towers and their associated piping and pumping apparatus as the 'best available technology'.


Making these changes to the plant would have cost "in excess of $800 million," Exelon told World Nuclear News today, noting that it had always clearly stated the plant would close if cooling towers were mandated. In addition, the plant would still require other "large capital expenditures" at a time when power demand and prices are low.


Despite this economic situation, Exelon noted that Oyster Creek is the cheapest generator of power in New Jersey. According to a study this year by Continental Economics, the plant saved its customers $191 million compared to other generation sources while producing 6% of the state's power. In addition, Oyster Creek put about $70 million per year into the local economy through wages, taxes and the purchase of goods and services.


After an 11-month negotiation and consultation with NJDEP, the result is that the state will not require cooling towers and Exelon will close the plant in 2019. The company said it was pleased with the level of certainty the deal affords and that NJDEP would soon issue a draft water use permit on that understanding. New Jersey governor Chris Christie said an "iron-clad" deal had been signed today on the matter.


Similar new policies on water use are under discussion in California and New York as well as at the federal level. The North American Electric Reliability Corp warned that about 41,200 MWe of generating capacity could potentially be lost to early closures and the lower efficiency of cooling towers.


Currently, of the USA's total of 104 nuclear power reactors, 60 use once-through cooling from rivers, lakes or the sea, while 35 use wet cooling towers. Nine units use dual systems, switching according to environmental conditions.


Researched and written
by World Nuclear News