The prospect of a nuclear emergency on the scale of Japan's Fukushima Daiichi disaster dominated discussion Thursday night at a hearing in which nuclear regulators otherwise gave the Oyster Creek Generating Station a positive safety assessment.
Resident after resident demanded answers of Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff as they assured the public that Oyster Creek, the oldest operating nuclear plant in the United States, is well-prepared for any emergency.
"If something happens, we all lose everything," said Peter Weeks of Save Barnegat Bay, one of many to speak at the session held at the Holiday Inn on Route 37 in Toms River.
NRC representatives repeatedly said not enough is known about the chain of events that led to the failures of the Fukushima plant after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami to fully understand what, if any, corrective actions need to be taken at United States' nuclear plants.
"We have a lot to learn from this accident," said Bill Cook, a senior reactor analyst with the NRC. His colleague, David Lew, the deputy regional administrator with the NRC, said it's "uncertain" exactly how the cooling process faltered at Fukushima but said the federal commission "will look at those issues. We will feed that back into our framework."
Safety inspection procedures and practices "are not stagnant," Lew said.
'Worth the risk?'
The residents who took the microphone at the annual information session were particularly concerned with the design of Oyster Creek, which largely mirrors that of Furushima. Both employ General Electric Mark I reactors that also operate at 22 other nuclear power plants in the United States.
Paul Gunter, an activist from Maryland who serves as a director with advocacy group Beyond Nuclear, referenced a study dating back more than three decades that was critical of the Mark I design. Gunter said the reactor's vulnerabilities are proven by the disaster in Japan.
"Does the failures at Fukushima make you confident in Oyster Creek," he asked the panel of NRC representatives. "I'm calling on you to revoke a vent that will fail 100 percent."
Lew said the plant's "design captures risks associated with reactors" while Jeffrey Kulp, the NRC's senior resident inspector at Oyster Creek, said he "personally" inspected plant vents. However, the experts declined to provide the "yes" or "no" answers speakers desired, repeating that data out of Japan has not been reliable enough to form hard conclusions.
A task force focused on analyzing the Fukushima situation has already briefed the NRC, whose members also traveled to Japan to provide assistance to their counterparts. A public forum focusing on their conclusions is scheduled for July.
Lew and Ron Bellamy, the branch chief from the NRC's Division of Reactor Projects, said the design and safety procedures at all plants in the United States take into account the risks associated with the region the plant resides in. Essentially, there is a much greater chance of a hurricane or earthquake here than a tsunami or tornado, and procedures reflect such geographic realities.
That stance angered the members of the public, who said they feared that similar environmental phenomena could lead to a Furushima-style disaster in Ocean County. "We've been told not to worry, things won't happen," said one speaker. "The jig is up guys. Nothing worked the way it was supposed to."
NRC members sat stoically as emotions ran high, declining to address broad accusations such as one offered by Edith Gbur, president of Jersey Shore Nuclear Watch: "It seems like you're more beholden to the nuclear industry than to the public."
The public also scoffed at the NRC members' confidence in evacuation procedures in the event of an emergency. Multiple speakers said the densely populated region would be nearly impossible to evacuate with any order.
"Is nuclear power worth the risk?" asked Gbur.
'Oyster Creek was operated safely'
The NRC recently concluded that Oyster Creek should be able to handle "extreme" events safely, after an inspection completed on April 28.
"The objective of this inspection was to promptly assess the capabilities of Oyster Creek to respond to extraordinary consequences similar to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Station Fuel Damage Event," the NRC wrote in a letter to Michael J. Pacilio, president and chief nuclear engineer for Exelon Nuclear, which owns Oyster Creek.
The review assessed plants' capabilities to deal with large fires or explosions on-site, internal and external flooding events, and equipment needed to mitigate fire and flood events.
"Like other plants, we identified some issues at Oyster Creek that either we’re going to have to remedy right away or we may have to look at a generic recommendation going forward that all the plants will have to address," NRC spokesman Neil A. Sheehan said. "This is really just our first cut and we just wanted to get a sense of how these plants are positioned to deal with extreme events."
The NRC gave Oyster Creek and Exelon high marks for their performance throughout 2010.
"The NRC determined that overall Oyster Creek operated in a manner that preserved public health and safety and met all cornerstone objectives," wrote Bellamy in a March 4 letter to Pacilio.
As a result of their overall performance, the NRC plans "baseline" inspections of Oyster Creek through June 2012, which Kulp said Thursday involve maintenance and system testing.
Kulp told the public at the hearing that he personally conducts daily inspections and reports back to the NRC each morning.
"I report to Oyster Creek every day... but I work for the NRC. I don't work for Exelon," Kulp said.
There were more than 5,200 hours of inspections in 2010, and all performance indicators came back "green," under the NRC's color-coded system. A "green" marker denotes the "safest" performance.
"Oyster Creek was operated safely in 2010," Kulp said.
The plant is scheduled to close in 2019.