Six Years After Sandy: Oyster Creek Prepared For Disaster

Photo by Chris Lundy

LACEY – It’s been six years since the unforgettable Superstorm Sandy took out some of the most beloved parts of the Jersey Shore. Not only did Sandy wash away memorable parts of places like Seaside Heights and parts of Long Beach Island, but it also posed a risk to those who lived near the oldest operating nuclear power plant in the country: Oyster Creek Generating Station.

Today, Oyster Creek is officially closed down, its reactors turned off. Jersey Shore Online reported on Sept. 17, 2018 when Exelon Generation officials announced the closure of Oyster Creek and the beginning stages of decommissioning. However, when Sandy hit at the end of October 2012, Oyster Creek was still operating and faced major issues as a result of the storm.

The New York Times reported back in January 2013 on how Oyster Creek reached an “alert” emergency status during Sandy. The report cited “several small errors” including unclear control room logs, grid failure, and water surges.

“Oyster Creek was the only one to go past “emergency event,” the lowest level of emergency, to “alert”,” which is the second-lowest of the four-stage ranking of emergencies for nuclear plants, the NYT report stated.

A report by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on Oyster Creek’s Hurricane Performance published on Nov. 13, 2012 focused in on the “timing of the emergency declarations” at the plant as well Exelon’s storm preparation, equipment performance, and “overall command and control from an emergency preparedness perspective” prior to the storm, according to the report.

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The NRC report stated that Oyster Creek’s emergency status went from an “Unusual Event” to “Alert” as Sandy caused higher than normal water levels and the plant’s water intake structure.

Although this declaration was deemed appropriate and timely by the report, some areas for improvement were determined including: “heightened awareness of emergency declaration thresholds, clearer documentation in control room records and ensuring reliable back-up power for the plant’s emergency operations facility,” according to the report.

In addition to the improvements realized after Sandy, major changes have also been made to safety and preparedness guidelines at nuclear power plants as a result of the Fukushima disaster in March 2011. These guidelines were not yet in effect at Oyster Creek during Sandy, according to Neil Sheehan of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“However, we would note that the reactor was shut down at the time and there were multiple means by which operators could keep the fuel in the reactor and the spent fuel pool at the time cooled. This included changes put in place after the 9/11 attacks,” he stated.

Sheehan said that Exelon was required to perform an assessment of the area for flooding events that were “above and beyond what the plant was designed to handle” in order to implement any necessary flood-mitigation methods that adhered to the updated regulations after Fukushima. This evaluation, done in May 2017, was found to be valid and protective.

Photo courtesy Exelon

“One of the post-Fukushima changes was a requirement that all plant owners acquire portable generators and pumps (and other “FLEX” equipment) that would help them respond to a loss of on-site and off-site power,” Sheehan told Jersey Shore Online. Oyster Creek has complied with this.

Now that Oyster Creek has shut its doors, the safety risk profile has been significantly reduced, according to Sheehan. If another Hurricane Sandy-like storm were to batter the Jersey Shore, Oyster Creek is in a much better position to handle it.

“The biggest risk at the site now is the spent (nuclear) fuel pool,” he added.

Part of the decommissioning process is transporting the spent fuel from the reactors into a spent fuel pool.  The “spent fuel pool” is located on site at Oyster Creek.

“Even if a problem were to occur involving the pool, such as a leak, the operators would have ample time to respond to it before there would be any concerns about impacts on plant workers or the public,” stated Sheehan.

Following the decaying process, spent fuel is then transferred into dry cask storage, then follows decontamination and dismantling of the facility, according to the NRC. This entire process can take up to 60 years, as the NRC describes it. However, with the impending sale of the plant to Holtec International, announced back in July 2018, the decommissioning timeline could be moved up to just 8 years by their math.

The NRC is only in the early stages transferring the license from Exelon to Holtec, said Sheehan.

“If the sale to Holtec is approved, it will not alter the requirements for compliance with our post-Fukushima orders,” he added.