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The Associated Press May 18, 2011, 1:32PM ET

Federal appeals court upholds nuke plant license

A federal appeals court on Wednesday upheld the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's decision to renew the operating license for the nation's oldest nuclear power plant.

Five environmental and citizens groups claimed the NRC didn't have sufficient information to determine whether the Oyster Creek plant in Lacey Township, N.J., can operate safely for the next 20 years.

But the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia found the NRC did not abuse its discretion in rejecting the objections.

The court also says it appears events in Japan don't provide a reason to review Oyster Creek's license. Oyster Creek, which started operating in 1969, shares the same design as the stricken Fukushima Daiichi reactor that continues to spew radiation into the atmosphere in Japan following an April earthquake and tsunami that knocked out crucial safety and cooling systems.

"The court has washed its hands of Oyster Creek, but they washed it in tritium-contaminated water," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. He was referring to radioactive groundwater that leaked from underground pipes at the plant in 2009 and which could threaten drinking water supplies if it spreads.

Oyster Creek's owners have decided to shut the plant down in 2019, ten years ahead of schedule. They reached a deal with Gov. Chris Christie's administration in December calling for the early shutdown in return for the state dropping its insistence that Oyster Creek build one or more costly cooling towers to end the plant's use of billions of gallons of creek water to cool the plant.

That system kills billions of marine creatures each year, and is blamed by environmentalists for raising water temperatures and contributing to the algae blooms and increased numbers of stinging jellyfish in Barnegat Bay and nearby waterways.

The NRC granted Oyster Creek a new 20-year license in April 2009, rejecting criticism from a coalition of residents and environmental groups that the plant was too old and degraded to operate safely for another two decades.

The opposition centered on corrosion to the plant's drywell shield, a metal enclosure that keeps superheated radioactive steam within a containment building around the reactor.

The NRC, which governs the industry, had determined the shield is safe despite previous water leaks that caused rust to eat away parts of it.

The plant's operator, Chicago-based Exelon Corp., had applied a strong coating material to the liner and removed a sand bed at the base of the reactor that was found to hold moisture.

Oyster Creek's design -- a boiling-water reactor -- is considered obsolete by today's standards.

The Nine Mile Point Nuclear Generating Station near Oswego, N.Y., went online Dec. 1, 1969, the same day as Oyster Creek, and recently got a new 20-year license. But Oyster Creek's original license was granted first, technically making it the oldest of the nation's 104 commercial nuclear reactors that are still operating.

Oyster Creek, located in the Forked River section of Lacey Township, about 50 miles east of Philadelphia and 75 miles south of New York City, generates enough electricity to power 600,000 homes a year. It provides 9 percent of New Jersey's electricity.

In its ruling, the appeals court determined the NRC did not abuse its discretion in granting the license over the objections of the opponents.

"We are confident that the NRC's review of Exelon's application was well-reasoned, and we will not second-guess technical decisions within the realm of its unique expertise," the court said in its ruling.

Tittel said it is extremely difficult for citizen groups to get a court to go against a government agency when that agency has proper legal oversight of a matter in question.

"This decision doesn't mean the plant is safe and the issues we raised are not important," he said. "It means the court decided to trust the NRC. There are still major problems with the plant including an inadequate, corroding containment wall, inadequate fire protection, issues with tritium leaks and elevated spent fuel rod storage and problems stemming from the aging of the facility."

The court also said the Japanese nuclear crisis provides no reason to re-open Oyster Creek's case.

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