Stockton Professor: Nuclear Power is “Terrible Neighbor”

Stockton Professor: Nuclear Power is “Terrible Neighbor”

Decommissioned Oyster Creek nuclear power plant in Lacey Township, N.J. (Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons)


Opponents of the Ocean Wind turbine project spoke in favor of using nuclear power as an alternative to the wind power at the July 27 Michael Shellenberger presentation sponsored by Save Our Shores in  Ocean City.

The speaker stated that that while climate change is indeed real, the only solution to reducing carbon emissions is nuclear power, contrary to the position of many environmental organizations.

His proposals to pursue solely nuclear power did not mention its disadvantages and costs. Nuclear power operates carbon free as do solar and wind power, but unlike them, nuclear generates large quantities of dangerous waste that are difficult to dispose of and costly to manage.

Nuclear power can supply an unlimited amount of power but creates an unlimited amount of hazardous nuclear waste requiring storage for at least 300 years. Nuclear power may be a useful servant but it is a terrible neighbor.

Take the example of the Oyster Creek nuclear plant 35 miles north of Atlantic City. After approximately 50 years of service it is being decommissioned due to its inability to compete with cheaper natural gas.

In the 1960s, Lacey Township signed up to host the plant. What they did not realize at the time was that they had signed a deal with devil. The town had traded its own long-term safety for the benefits of good paying jobs and reduced property taxes.

Due to environmental and transportation concerns, nuclear waste storage sites in Nevada or Washington state promised by the federal government never materialized, leaving local plants on their own to store their nuclear waste on site for decades if not centuries.

The costs associated with decommissioning the nuclear site, estimated between $800 million and $1.4 billion, are another legacy left by the plant. The original owner/operator of the plant, Exelon, sold the plant to another company who will execute the decommissioning plan. For the rest of this article I will refer to this decommissioning company as DC.

While the project is supported by a decommissioning fund, likely cost overruns will be paid by future generations through their utility bills. The costs cover the removal and deactivation of spent nuclear fuel, control rods, the reactor and associated buildings, which themselves have become radioactive from exposure to radiation.

But now, with decommissioning approaching, the township is paying the piper dearly for the good years. Oyster Creek Nuclear Plant has been shut down. The spent nuclear fuel and radioactive debris from the reactor and the associated buildings will be stored in 68 cylindrical casks, each 22 feet high and 11 feet in diameter, emitting low levels of radiation on the now-defunct site. The casks must remain intact for at least 300 years to allow the radioactivity of the waste inside to decay to handleable levels.

DC is now in charge of the decommissioning project. DC makes no commitment as to how long, decades or even centuries, these casks will have to remain on the Lacey Township site in close proximity to homes and schools.

Nor is there a guarantee that the casks, manufactured by DC, will remain intact during the 300-year storage period. Lacey Township at first sued DC to prevent the storage of these casks on the site. After a long legal battle, Lacey settled the lawsuit with them, acquiescing to the onsite storage on the condition that DC would build and assign another cask for emergency use by the township.

The Lacey Township decision shows it is a virtual prisoner of DC, which now owns the nuclear waste but is also the town’s only hope of restoring the site to radiation-free conditions.

Operating nuclear plants are also a continual hazard to the communities where they are sited. Nuclear plants do not pose a threat of nuclear explosion. Their Achilles heel is the plumbing, which brings water in and out of the reactor vessels.

The water pipes, degraded by the nuclear reactions, develop cracks and eventually leak water with radioactive contaminants. This water can leak into the local water supply and cause cancer or DNA damage to people who drink it.

As shown by the Oyster Creek experience, nuclear power is costly, dangerous and unmanageable. Those in favor of nuclear power should be ready to accept nuclear power stations in their own backyards and relive the Lacey Township experience. Nuclear power makes a terrible neighbor.

Dr. John Aitken, Ph.D.

Adjunct Professor of Physics, Stockton University