For safety’s sake, shut down Oyster Creek

Aug 08, 2007

By spring 2009, federal regulators must decide whether to allow the Oyster Creek nuclear reactor to operate for an additional 20 years. The decision is a critical one for New Jersey’s energy future.

Oyster Creek, located in Ocean County just south of Toms River, began operating in May 1969. Be cause they produced electricity, reactors were viewed as a peaceful use of the atom, as opposed to the atomic bomb. President Richard Nixon predicted that by the turn of the century, more than 1,000 reactors would be in use.

But the bright future for nukes soon dimmed. Financial institutions soured on them because of large cost overruns and long delays. The American people also lost interest, especially after the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. The last order for a U.S. nuclear reactor occurred in 1978, and the total number of reactors reached only 104.

The dormant nuclear industry was recently reawakened by concerns over global warming. Coal plants, which emit carbon dioxide, are under scrutiny. Nuclear power (which does not emit greenhouse gases) is being presented as a viable alternative by utilities and the Bush administration. Utility companies have discussed adding up to 29 reactors, mostly in the Southeast. They are also working to keep aging and corroding reactors in operation — despite any public health risks.

Reactors are licensed to operate for 40 years, although several dozen closed early due to mechanical and financial problems. Because many reactors are aging (nearly half are more than 30 years old), nuclear utilities are asking the government’s permission to operate for an additional 20 years. These requests are being rubber-stamped; 47 of 47 license extension applications have been approved, and several dozen more are expected soon.

There has been little public resistance to most license extensions. But in New Jersey, the state Department of Environmental Protection and a coalition of citizens’ groups have filed legal appeals to block the Oyster Creek extension. Last year, Gov. Jon Corzine said, “I don’t think this should be relicensed for 20 years under any circumstances.” Many residents near the plant have raised concerns in public meetings.

Oyster Creek, the oldest of the 104 U.S. reactors, presents multiple public health risks. Its aging parts raise the chance of a meltdown due to mechanical failure; last year, Greenpeace cited three “near miss” accidents at Oyster Creek in the past two decades. It is also a target for a terrorist attack, perhaps more than other reactors, since it lies just 60 miles from both New York City and Philadelphia.

But another Chernobyl or 9/11 need not occur for Oyster Creek to harm people. Emissions from the reactor into the air are the highest of any U.S. reactor, more than five times those of Three Mile Island. The cocktail of more than 100 radioactive chemicals produced in the reactor enters human bodies through breathing and the food chain and attacks cells, leading to cancer. This toxic mix is especially harmful to the fetus, infant and child.

There is evidence suggesting that Oyster Creek may have harmed local citizens. Oyster Creek has emitted more radioactivity than any U.S. reactor. Average levels of strontium 90 measured in local baby teeth doubled from the late 1980s to the late 1990s as the reactor aged and corroded.

Ocean County has the highest cancer rate of any New Jersey county, followed by adjoining Monmouth County. Local rates of cancer in children are high. Breast cancer rates are high for young, middle-age and elderly women. In an area that is relatively affluent, with access to world-class medical care, there should be concerns about Oyster Creek’s possible contribution to this situation.

Other research shows that when nuclear reactors close, local rates of infant death and childhood cancer plunge immediately. With millions of people living near Oyster Creek, there is potential to improve public health by shutting down the reactor.

Oyster Creek produces only 7 percent of New Jersey’s electricity and will close sooner or later. This 7 percent could easily be replaced by better conservation efforts and more efficient products. Moreover, the growing energy needs of the state can and should be met by safe and renewable alternatives, such as wind and solar power. The risks of keeping the reactor open for a few more years are far greater than the electricity it can produce.

Joseph J. Mangano is executive director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research and education group based in New York. He may be reached at

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