Power Play

Oyster Creek, long the target of environmentalists’ wrath, is the nation’s oldest nuclear plant. It may be a security risk. It’s also about to get another twenty-year license, and there’s nothing any of us can do about it.

On a bleak afternoon last January, what appeared to be men in commando gear, their faces painted black, were spotted creeping along the marshy shores of lower Barnegat Bay. By the time Rachelle Benson picked out the dark figures, they had taken up positions on an old cattle farm that spreads across a sandy apron of land hard by Route 9 and the Garden State Parkway, just south of Forked River.

“These did not look like friendly guys,” Benson says. Within minutes it became clear that their target was the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station, a 636-megawatt powerhouse in Lacey Township that supplies almost 10 percent of the electricity used in New Jersey.

Despite being heavily armed, highly skilled, and tightly organized, the attackers never got near the heart of the plant or the high-tech web of cables, pipes, and pulleys that serve it. They never got to the radioactive cache of spent uranium stored in cooling pools above the reactor core and in reinforced concrete casks outside the containment building.

“Actually, they never even got across the fence,” says Benson, a spokeswoman for Oyster Creek and the company that owns it, AmerGen Energy. The attackers were not real terrorists but a group of ex-military men, police officers, and security guards trained to be faux commandos in a carefully choreographed mock attack, one of the government’s key tools in assessing the vulnerability of the nation’s 103 nuclear reactors.

From a distance, Benson says, the attack looked very real. Closer up, it looked like an elaborate game of laser tag decisively won by the defenders of Oyster Creek, to the great satisfaction of AmerGen officials. What was not apparent is that both the attackers and the defenders of the Oyster Creek plant were being paid by the nuclear industry, or that the attack plan and defense preparations had been designed with the help of another nuclear industry hireling, Wackenhut Corporation. And it was not apparent that the Government Accountability Office had recently found that such “force on force” programs were flawed because the industry dictated the terms of the mock attacks and presided over the analysis of attack plans before the operation took place.

GAO inspectors who witnessed several mock attacks—including one in which invaders almost took control of a nuclear plant—also found that the participants, handpicked by the plants, were little more than an ill-trained assemblage of off-duty cops and security guards. The GAO experts witnessed three mock attacks between 2004 and 2006 but, for security reasons, did not identify the facilities involved.  

Congressional committees have questioned the use of Wackenhut personnel in the war games because of a potential conflict of interest. The company manages security for dozens of nuclear plants across the country and has an obvious interest in their “successful” defense.  

At Oyster Creek, America’s oldest operating nuclear power station, opened in 1969, it’s getting harder and harder to distinguish the real threats from the imaginary ones, the good guys from the bad. For the past two years, the 38-year-old dynamo, set amid some of the state’s busiest seaside resorts in booming Ocean County, has been the flashpoint in a controversy that could have a profound effect on New Jersey and the nation for years to come.

The debate, technically, is about a license. AmerGen Energy and its parent utility, the Illinois-based Exelon, have asked the government for permission to operate Oyster Creek for another twenty years when its current permit expires in 2009.  

Company officials say they’ve spent millions to keep the aging plant running safely, to protect it from terrorist attack, and to prevent it from irreversibly fouling the delicate marine estuary of Barnegat Bay.  

“The safe and secure operation of our nuclear power plants is the highest priority for our company,” Bill Levis, an Exelon vice president, said at a recent hearing before the New Jersey Legislature. “Safety also makes good business sense. If these plants do not operate safely, they risk being shut down. If they are not operating, they are not contributing to our company’s bottom line.”

Industry supporters also argue that nuclear energy makes sense in an age of $3-a-gallon gasoline and mounting evidence that carbon emissions are heating the atmosphere to a level that could have dire global consequences.  

Former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman, who as head of the Environmental Protection Agency supported several measures to reduce greenhouse gases, claims that nuclear power is actually a potent weapon against global warming.

“None [of the existing global warming initiatives] will have as great a positive impact on our environment as will increasing our ability to generate electricity from nuclear power,” Whitman said in 2006, after she was hired to be a spokeswoman for the Nuclear Energy Institute.

 Opposing Whitman and the nuclear industry is a coalition of anti-nuclear activists, environmentalists, and politicians who have waged an unceasing attack on AmerGen’s plans for Oyster Creek. They say that critical parts of the plant are rotting away, that cooling pools for spent fuel are vulnerable to attack, and that runoff from the reactor is killing marine life in the bay.

Despite their noisy protests that can turn a public meeting into something more like a tent revival, it is not fair to dismiss this determined lot as a bunch of ill-informed zealots. Their supporters include a lawyer who was trained as a physicist, a former White House energy adviser, and concerned scientists from around the country. Locally, 24 of 33 Ocean County towns have passed anti-Oyster Creek resolutions; also on their side are almost all their local legislators, much of the state’s congressional delegation (both sides of the aisle), and the New Jersey Attorney General’s office. They even have some support from Hollywood.

So far, they’ve had some success playing on the home field of those they see as adversaries—AmerGen and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency that oversees all peaceful uses of atomic power. Last year, the anti–Oyster Creek coalition and its lead attorney, Richard Webster of the Rutgers Environmental Law Clinic, convinced an important committee within the NRC to officially recognize some of the group’s concerns about the aging plant running for another two decades.  

This was no small feat: Not only does the committee have the power to stop the plant’s re-licensing, but it is famously stingy in granting hearings like the one it gave Webster and the coalition.

 “We’ve had some success, no question,” says Janet Tauro, a Brick Township resident and founding member of an anti-nuclear group that calls itself GRAMMES—Grandmothers, Mothers, and More for Energy Safety.

“But our success isn’t really about our command of the legal and technical issues in this debate,” says Tauro. “It’s about the power of being right. It’s about the power of simple common sense: This is the nation’s oldest nuclear plant. Is it worth rolling the dice with public safety for another twenty years, all for a few measly watts of electricity?”

Preliminary safety and environmental reports by the NRC show that the agency seriously considered the opposition’s objections and found some worthy of investigation. Despite all of this, it appears that the NRC is on track to approve re-licensing. As this issue went to press, opponents were digesting the NRC’s latest safety evaluation; still, virtually nobody believed that Oyster Creek wouldn’t be re-licensed.

Still, AmerGen faces some formidable obstacles, including the certain filing of a federal lawsuit to stop the re-licensing. Scientists from New Jersey to Los Alamos are prepared to testify. And judging by a recent angry appearance in Newark by anti-nuclear actor Alec Baldwin—who declared that the nuclear industry cares more about “lining its pockets” than protecting the public—the liberal glammerati are girding themselves for a fight to the finish.

The biggest uncertainty for Oyster Creek, and the most intriguing wild card in the whole controversy, is the opinion of that liberal-yet-business-friendly guy in Trenton, Governor Jon Corzine.

 When Oyster Creek first opened, some experts say, it was already obsolete. Unlike more modern reactors that cool their core by recirculating water condensed inside cooling towers, the Ocean County plant works by sucking 1.4 billion gallons of cold water out of Forked River every day and expelling it back into the bay at temperatures that can reach 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

In 2005, while still a U.S. senator, Corzine pushed for a new law that would have mandated independent health and safety studies for all atomic plants seeking license renewal. The law would have forced operators to show, as a condition of getting a new license, that the plants were not vulnerable to terrorist attack. Since becoming governor, Corzine has remained sympathetic to the foes of Oyster Creek, saying that he still wants an independent study and would not support a full twenty-year license extension for the plant.  

By a weird regulatory quirk, the state of New Jersey has control over the plant’s outflow of cooling water, and with all the ease of a pocket veto, Corzine could shred Oyster Creek’s discharge permit. If he does, most agree, AmerGen would have to either build cooling towers (at an estimated cost of $100 million) or shutter the plant.  

Since AmerGen paid only about $10 million for the plant in a 2000 deal with GPU Energy, shelling out more money to build cooling towers might be feasible. But pinning down the governor on just what he does want for Oyster Creek has been nearly impossible. He declined to be interviewed for this story, referring questions to his press secretary, Anthony Coley, which led to this exchange:

“The governor is against a twenty-year extension,” Coley said.

But the NRC offers nothing less than a twenty-year extension.

“The governor is against a twenty-year extension,” Coley repeated.

What about the state discharge permit for Oyster Creek—does Corzine support a renewal of that?

“The governor is against a twenty-year extension.”  

Corzine’s evasiveness is especially galling to the activists because the governor may be the only person alive who can single-handedly close down the plant forever. While Corzine has repeatedly hinted that he might support re-licensing for a shorter duration—say, ten years—that option is a nonstarter. The NRC points out that only twenty-year re-licensings are feasible because the costs and labor required to check twice as often would be prohibitive. So the governor’s choices are limited.

“Corzine could effectively end all this right now, but he keeps playing all sides,” says Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “He’s got to choose if he’s a friend of the public or of the corporate interests that were his buddies on Wall Street. If he chooses wrong, Barnegat Bay could very well be dead in twenty years.”

 As an avid kayaker, Michele Donato has explored miles of Barnegat’s gentle tidal reaches between Long Beach Island and the mainland: the Sedge Islands, Clam Island, Sands Point Harbor and the Double Creek Channel, the Barnegat Light point. In recent years, Donato says, her trips into the lower bay have changed.

“There’s a real sense of eeriness in some areas,” Donato says. “If you stop paddling and just listen quietly, you realize that there is a kind of sterility. The waters there seem quiet, lifeless.”

Longtime Barnegat anglers and marine scientists say Donato’s ghostly paddles reflect the fact that the bay is undergoing profound changes for the worse. Since Dutch explorer Cornelius Mey first sailed into the bay in 1614, Barnegat has been an incubator for crabs, clams, and oysters. But these days, swimmers and shellfish hunters find themselves dodging the stinging nettles, or jellyfish, that have infiltrated the bay. The life-giving beds of underwater eelgrass that breathe oxygen into the water are giving way to massive blooms of algae and sea lettuce. Shipworms are attacking docks and pilings. Migratory fish, drawn to the warm waters pouring from Oyster Creek’s effluent pipes, aren’t migrating—and aren’t reproducing.

“The bay is slowly choking; there’s no doubt about it,” says Thomas P. Fote, an official of the Jersey Coast Anglers Association and the state’s representative to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. “The question is, what’s to blame?”

Nitrogen-rich runoff from development within the 660-square mile watershed that drains into the bay is surely a major culprit. The population of once-rural Ocean County, the second-fastest-growing in New Jersey, has leaped from 38,000 in 1940 to more than 500,000 today, according to the U.S. Census.

But studies have shown that the Oyster Creek nuclear plant every year kills millions of fish and marine invertebrates that are sucked into the facility’s massive intake pipes. Since 1992, according to data compiled by the NRC, fourteen endangered sea turtles have been killed in the intake pipes; another 32 have been trapped and injured.

The Oyster Creek outflow contains chlorine and biocides the plant uses to treat its cooling mechanism. These chemicals kill shellfish larvae and microorganisms in the outflow area, making it a favorite feeding ground for fish species that dine on the carnage. “It’s become a great big chum pond,” says Bruce Freeman, formerly a research scientist with the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife.

Superheated outflow water from the plant not only kills marine life but attracts some migratory fish that normally winter in warm southern waters. When Oyster Creek shuts down for routine refueling in the winter, these fish freeze to death. In 2004, AmerGen paid New Jersey $1 million to settle criminal and civil actions alleging violations of Oyster Creek’s discharge permit. The state said the violations caused at least 5,876 fish to die from heat shock.

To be fair, AmerGen has spent millions to protect wildlife by modifying the plant intake system and lowering the effluent temperature to reduce thermal shock. The company rejects the notion that the plant is an environmental bogeyman, arguing that Oyster Creek annually saves the discharge of an estimated 7.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide that would be emitted by a fossil-fuel power plant—an amount equal to half of New Jersey’s yearly auto emissions.

Furthermore, the company contends, the installation of cooling towers would be more detrimental to the environment than their current operations. And it says salt particles emitted by the cooling towers could adversely affect the ecosystem, a contention that has been seconded by the NRC.

“Most people don’t know or don’t understand the rigorous and substantial effort we put into our work at Oyster Creek to protect the environment,” says Benson, the plant spokeswoman. “We live here, and we raise our families here. It is just as important to us as it is to the local community that we protect our natural resources.”

Trapped sea turtles and freezing fish may be compelling, but they are not at the heart of the Oyster Creek controversy. The central issue lies in a series of welded steel plates that line the space immediately surrounding the reactor vessel itself.

The drywell liner, as it is known, was designed to contain radioactive steam that might escape from the reactor in an emergency. The liner itself, roughly an inch thick, is surrounded by a layer of concrete, and the whole structure is surrounded by two feet of reinforced concrete that makes up the walls of the containment building.

By all accounts, the drywell liner is an essential safety feature of the Oyster Creek plant and all other plants of its type: the GE Mark 1. The controversial design, which first became the subject of congressional hearings some 30 years ago, was considered obsolete even as it came on line. It has been subject to multiple retrofittings mandated by the government over the years.

Oyster Creek opponents, digging through old inspection reports, discovered some alarming information that indicated the drywell liner isn’t exactly what it used to be. They found that between 1969 and 1992, the liner had corroded by nearly half its original thickness in some areas—from about 1.15 inches to 0.60 inch. Water leaking to the outside of the liner had caused a “bathtub ring” of corrosion in an especially sensitive area where the drywell is sunk into a pocket of concrete and sand. AmerGen responded to the corrosion by applying a layer of epoxy and ordering an ultrasound testing program to be repeated at regular intervals.

“Talk about your basic nightmare,” says attorney Webster, an environmental scientist who also trained as a physicist. “This thing is rotting away at a steady clip, and they’re treating it with epoxy that has a shelf life of about ten years.”

Rudolph Hausler, an engineering consultant hired by Oyster Creek’s opponents, says failure of the drywell could bring about what he calls “the guillotine effect”—a sudden buckling and collapse of liner and concrete around it that would sever electrical lines and make it difficult to control an overheating reactor core. “Collapse of the liner could create a catastrophe,” Hausler says.

In a 911-page “Safety and Evaluation Report” released by the NRC in December 2006, the agency said it was “reasonably sure” that the drywell liner would stay intact for the life of Oyster Creek’s new license. The report concluded that AmerGen was following NRC directives to make more extensive and frequent tests of the structure. Thousands of hours of review and inspection went into the drywell analysis, the agency says.

For Webster and the other members of the anti–Oyster Creek coalition, it isn’t enough. They say they won’t rest until the National Academy of Sciences or some similar group makes an independent review of the drywell issue.

“There’s too much at stake here for us to simply trust the NRC,” Webster says. “How can we afford to believe the government on this?”

As Webster’s question indicates, the Oyster Creek controversy is about a lot more than the future of a single power station. It’s about more than the environment, the energy crisis, or the wisdom of utility deregulation. To a great extent, it is about a loss of faith in the private and public institutions that people once trusted. It is about the divisiveness and cynicism that mark American political life.  

The NRC’s December 2006 report concluded, with some important conditions, that there were no mechanical or technical problems that would prevent the Oyster Creek plant from running safely until 2029. The conclusion was based, in part, on an estimated 93,000 man-hours of study and analysis that the NRC and AmerGen put into the re-licensing application.  

Reading the report in all its excruciating technical detail could very nearly kill a person. But for the Oyster Creek opponents and the scientists who support them, the report seems to be little more than a blip as they head toward an inevitable federal court showdown over the plant’s future. In their estimation, the bureaucrats at NRC and the capitalists at AmerGen are far too chummy for comfort—peapod apologists for a potentially lethal technology.

“How can we trust conclusions by the NRC when they’re based on data provided by the company, data we can’t even see?” asks Peggi Sturmfels, a director of the nonprofit New Jersey Environmental Federation. “What’s an acceptable level of risk for AmerGen and the NRC is not acceptable for the people whose lives are in danger if there is an accident at that plant.”

The NRC, of course, sees itself as occupying a responsible and reasoned middle ground between anti-nuclear zealotry and the high-powered pro-nuclear lobby. The robust protection of public safety, they would argue, should not handcuff the providers of energy for voracious American consumers.

In September 2006, retiring NRC commissioner Edward McGaffigan Jr., addressing a group of civil service trainees at the agency as he closed out a 35-year career, spoke regretfully about the atmosphere of public cynicism surrounding the nuclear-power industry. His message to the new crop of regulators: Hold your heads high.

“When I began, government service was regarded as a noble occupation,” McGaffigan told them. “NASA had gone to the moon in response to President Kennedy’s challenge. The federal interstate highway system was moving along smoothly in response to President Eisenhower’s vision.  

“You are the nation’s nuclear watchdogs. You, like I, have come to this institution with a dedication to protect and serve the American people. You, like I, may have specific friends or family in mind who live near nuclear power plants….I am proud that you were not deterred from service here…by the ugly attempts to label NRC employees as ‘lapdogs of the nuclear industry.’ ”  

In the Oyster Creek controversy, it seems that skeptical members of the public are always butting heads somewhere with embittered and defensive representatives of the government or the nuclear industry. This radioactive grudge match gives off far more heat than light. In the ceaseless whirl of recrimination, facts lose their power, common ground is obscured, all motivation becomes suspect. Just what should the public be afraid of if Oyster Creek and other plants like it operate deep into the 21st century? What warning signs of impending catastrophe should we look for?

The answer, in the current atmosphere, is another question: Who knows?

Take the January 2006 “force on force” exercise at Oyster Creek. Both AmerGen and the NRC say that the plant’s defense force “passed” the anti-terror test and met all safety requirements laid out by federal law and regulation. Benson, the AmerGen spokeswoman, says Oyster Creek not only passed the test but passed in glorious fashion as its team of trained security specialists, furnished by the security experts at Wackenhut, easily repulsed the mock invaders. Still, critics want to know if future raids will be legitimate exercises. Another wrinkle: Wackenhut guards have been found faking their reports at a Florida nuclear plant and, at Oyster Creek, asleep on the job.

Since the September 11 attacks, the NRC has taken substantial steps to improve plant security. The agency has issued a stream of safety directives that have cost the nuclear industry more than $1.2 billion to implement. By all independent accounts, nuclear generating stations are safer than ever.

But for every report of progress, there is also another sleeping security guard or critical GAO study. Critics and pro-nuclear forces grow farther apart. The old-fashioned American faith that sent a man to the moon erodes a little more each day.

“With almost every issue surrounding this plant, you find the same thing,” says Paul Gunter, an Oyster Creek opponent who heads the non-profit Nuclear Information and Resource Service’s reactor-watchdog project.

“You want to believe that the plant operators are telling the truth, that the NRC is telling the truth,” Gunter says. “But you’ve got very little data to go on. They have all the information. They are deliberately secretive. They tell you everything is fine; then you find out that plants are flunking their security tests or that a spent-fuel pool is covered by just a thin sheet of metal, or the liner of the containment vessel is rotting away.

 “In these circumstances, I’ve learned it’s a lot safer to be skeptical from the outset.”

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