The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has granted 20-year license renewals for two nuclear power plants in southern New Jersey, a decision that drew sharp rebuke from environmentalists.
The Salem 1 and 2 plants and another nuclear facility, Hope Creek, all share an island on the Delaware River.
The NRC announced its decision Thursday, noting that a staff review of the renewal requests concluded that both Salem plants were safe and license extensions were acceptable. The current license for the Salem 1 plant is due to expire in 2016, while the Salem 2 plant's license is good until 2020.
Officials say a decision on whether to renew Hope Creek's license, due to expire in 2026, will be likely be made later this summer. All three plants are operated by PSEG Nuclear.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, blasted the NRC's decision to renew the Salem plants' licenses, citing their age and numerous concerns his organization has about the site where the plants are located in Lower Alloways Creek Township.
"The NRC believes in license first, inspect and regulate later. They have it backwards," Tittel said. "We believe outside independent experts need to review the plants and their different design features to ensure safety."
Tittel said the NRC failed to address "sizable tritium leaks" that he says are causing major groundwater contamination near the plant. The radioactive substance _ a byproduct of nuclear fission _ was found in two storm catch drain basins at the Salem 2 plant in April 2010, but officials there have said no traces of tritium were found in samples taken upstream of an outfall where treated water from the plant is discharged into the river.
Joe Delmar, a PSEG spokesman, said tritium hasn't leaked into groundwater there for several years. He said the firm established a groundwater remediation program in 2003 that is approved by state environmental officials, adding that the size of the water plume and tritium volume has continued to decrease over the past few years. He also said there has been no evidence of any groundwater coming underneath the plant.
Tittel also fears that groundwater intrusion _ where water from the Delaware River is coming underneath the plant _ could potentially cause structural problems or could seep into parts of the plant. He also said the NRC needs to look closer at metal fatigue or other issues that come up as nuclear facilities age.
The Salem 1 plant's initial operating license was issued in December 1976, while Salem 2 was licensed in May 1981. New Jersey also is home to the nation's oldest nuclear plant _ Oyster Creek in Lacey Township _ which began operating in December 1969 and is scheduled to close by the end of 2019.
In reaching its decision, the NRC said PSEG Nuclear has identified actions that have been or will be taken to manage the effects of aging in safety systems, structures and key components at the Salem plants. The agency says these functions will be maintained during the 20-year license extension.
Concerns about the aging of the nation's nuclear facilities were the focus of a recent yearlong investigation by The Associated Press, which found that the relicensing process often lacked fully independent safety reviews.
Records show that NRC paperwork sometimes matches word-for-word the language used in a plant operator's application. The relicensing process relies heavily on such paperwork, with very little onsite inspection and verification. And under relicensing rules, tighter standards are not required to compensate for decades of wear and tear.
Nuclear plants across the nation have been under extra scrutiny following the recent disaster at a Japanese nuclear plant brought on by an earthquake and tsunami that knocked out power to critical cooling systems.
Citing that, the NRC said the Salem plants will be subject to any new rules that come out of the agency's ongoing review of what happened in Japan. The task force conducting that review is expected to deliver its near-term report next month, while a longer-term report should be ready within six months.