Will the Container Hold? Aging Plant Relicensed, Public Left Out of Discussion


April 24, 2009

Oyster Creek's safety issues unresolved

Samuel J. Collins, regional director for the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is barring the public from attending an upcoming safety meeting between the owners of the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station and federal regulators. He is doing so even though the safety issues would never have been considered had citizens not identified them and intervened in relicensing proceedings.

By barring public participation, Collins further erodes public trust and disregards congressional demands for government transparency. Though the commission recently relicensed Oyster Creek for another 20 years, it did so with recommendations that NRC staff enhance enforcement of safety commitments made by Exelon to monitor corrosion of the reactor's drywell shell, the steel containment shielding the public from radiation.



The commission recommended that NRC staff increase enforcement because "Exelon's series of errors . . . directly contradicts Exelon's ability to meet the commitments."

If Exelon and NRC staff were confident ongoing corrosion is resolved or that minimum safety standards are assured, they would welcome the public with open arms. Instead, Collins' refusal to involve citizens exacerbates the perception of industry coziness and disdain for the public. Indeed, NRC staff entered into an adversarial relationship with citizens at the outset of relicensing, blocking participation every step of the way with legal maneuvering, withholding of data and arcane bureaucracy.

Each time citizens shined a ray of light into the dark well of NRC secrecy through Freedom of Information requests, more safety problems that needed to be addressed surfaced, proving that public participation helps, rather than hinders, effective oversight. While Collins characterizes the Oyster Creek license review was the most extensive to date, that isn't saying much.

No other citizen's group had ever made it out of the starting gate in a relicensing proceeding, for varying reasons, not the least of which is expense and the torturous NRC rulebook. Oyster Creek's renewal process was extensive only because citizens raised a valid safety contention, obtained two hearings before the Atomic Safety Licensing Board, an NRC advisory agency, and successfully exposed Exelon's flawed operations and analyses.

Collins erroneously suggests in an April 15 Asbury Park Press opinion piece that there are no outstanding safety issues, and that analysis of the drywell is conservative. We know that neither is the case. Disturbing questions remain, raised not only by citizens, but by the state Department of Environmental Protection, NRC Commissioner Gregory Jazcko, scientists who reviewed Oyster Creek drywell data at the Sandia National Laboratory and the ASLB.

The commission's relicensing was premature because safety issues remain unaddressed including:

Exelon's failure to honor its commitment to perform 3-D analysis according to standards set by the Atomic Committee on Reactor Safeguards to determine the actual extent of corrosion.

Exelon's use of overly optimistic drywell thickness in its analysis.

Exelon used a factor in an equation that gave the drywell a 60 percent boost in safety margins that the Sandia National Laboratory and the DEP both found to be unjustified.

Exelon's subsequent failure to recalculate its available safety margin according to Sandia recommendations.

Exelon's inability to detect whether water is entering the drywell and causing ongoing corrosion.

We are at a difficult crossroads. The plant has been relicensed, yet outstanding safety issues crucial to the well-being of the 3.5 million people living in a 50-mile radius of the plant remain unresolved. What to do?

NRC staff must be fully briefed on recommendations by the two advisory boards on how to calculate the safety margins of the drywell. Exelon must then be required to revise its analysis according to those specific recommendations. An independent review of the revised analysis by the Sandia National Laboratory is essential. NRC must publicly detail preventative measures taken to ensure water is not entering the drywell. And the NRC should re-open its exit meetings with Oyster Creek's operators to the very concerned public.

During relicensing, the state DEP reviewed Exelon's data, pinpointed areas of weakness and made its safety concerns public. It was a credible watchdog and should continue in that role. The congressional delegation and Gov. Jon Corzine now need to work together to make sure all safety questions are resolved.

Until we can put these safety issues behind us in a publicly transparent and technically accurate manner, the NRC will retain its reputation as an arm of the nuclear industry, not a guardian of public safety.