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Oyster Creek declares short alert

Blockage from algae, sea grass forces power reduction

Published in the Asbury Park Press 08/8/05
BY ERIK LARSEN
MANAHAWKIN BUREAU



LACEY ? The Oyster Creek nuclear power plant declared an "alert" on Saturday, the second step in a four-step emergency classification system, after algae and sea grass became trapped against one of its underwater intake screens.

The alert lasted for three minutes after it was declared at 4:03 a.m., during which time the plant's engineers reduced power to 43 percent, according to AmerGen, Oyster Creek's corporate owner.

Following the cancelation of the alert, the plant remained at "unusual event" status, the lowest of the classifications, until 7:55 a.m., while technicians removed the seaweed, inspected equipment and worked to return the plant to normal operation.

Peter Resler, a spokesman for AmerGen, the plant's operator, said engineers in the plant's control room initiated the alert after a sudden reduction in water entering Oyster Creek's north intake vent was detected. The other primary intake, the south intake, was unaffected, he said.

The water that comes into the plant is used to condense steam created by Oyster Creek's reactor. Without a sufficient amount of water coming in from the outside to cool the reactor, the reactor could not operate safely and could increase the risk of a radioactive release.

Resler said a massive clump of algae and sea grass became lodged against the south intake's screen, a clump that plant operators believe ended up flowing freely in the plant's channels following thunderstorms Friday and early Saturday.

"The operators took the appropriate action, reducing power and safely securing plant equipment," Bud Swenson, Oyster Creek vice president, said.

"In certain generic terms, this was not an emergency, the operators followed their procedures to reduce power promptly and safely," Resler said. "The plant is in stable condition as we address the issues with grass. Once we're satisfied, we'll safely come up in power. There was never a risk to the plant or the public."

Under normal circumstances, Resler said the plant operates at 100 percent. He said he could not say when it would again.

The 630-megawatt plant, the oldest commercial nuclear power plant in the United States, was operating at about 50 percent power on Sunday, said Diane Screnci, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

"Power ascension can take some time," Screnci said, who explained that inspectors from the NRC were evaluating what happened. Oyster Creek was not completely shut down because no other problems were detected, she said.

"The plant is stable and has been stable and responded as designed and we'll continue to follow-up," Screnci said.

Chief Jeff Thompson of the Ocean County Sheriff's Department said their communications center was notified of the event as NRC and plant procedures require, but no additional action was taken.

"We were notified of a non-emergency event ? this was notification only ? about a low level on the intake. That's standard procedure," Thompson said.

He said that the Sheriff's Department has a complete set of formal procedures in place for the worst-case scenario, which would involve evacuation or asking people to seek shelter indoors.

According to the federal government, emergency conditions at nuclear plants span four classifications. Such conditions range from an emergency involving workers within the plant to an emergency involving residents around the plant site. The classifications are unusual event, alert, site area emergency and general emergency.

The next emergency condition status after "alert" in the NRC's classification, is "site emergency," which means that small radiation could be released from the plant.

"If there was a greater event or more action was necessary, we would open the office of emergency management and notify the state," Thompson said.

Edith Gbur, president of Jersey Shore Nuclear Watch, an organization that wants to see Oyster Creek closed, said the incident underscores the need to replace its current cooling system with a cooling tower.

A cooling tower at the plant has been proposed by state environmental officials as a way for AmerGen to meet new standards requiring that its cooling system kill fewer fish, clams and shrimp.

Oyster Creek's license renewal is now pending with the NRC and would allow Oyster Creek to stay open for another 20 years beyond the end of its initial 40-year license, which expires in 2009.

Plant owner AmerGen has until Sept. 7 to decide whether to build a cooling tower or restore about 3,500 acres of wetlands (a preliminary estimate) in the Barnegat Bay watershed, according to a state Department of Environmental Protection fact sheet.

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bradley M. Campbell said he would prefer that AmerGen build a cooling tower. He cited "legitimate concerns" over whether restoration and other measures can "truly offset the impacts to fisheries and other resources" damaged by once-through systems, like the one at Oyster Creek.

Oyster Creek has used its current system, known as an open-loop cooling system, since beginning operations in 1969.

Thomas Thorpe, 65, of Berkeley, said alternative ways to cool the plant are needed, particularly in light of Saturday's incident.

"I would have to say they're going in the right direction with the cooling towers, instead of using ocean water," Thorpe said.
 

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I would be shocked if they build a cooling towwer.

This was the same thing that Salem fought against several years ago and was allowed to flood some salt marsh in lieu of killing millions of baby fish.

When will the public and gov't officials wake up and not allow this to keep happening?
 
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