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Oyster Creek Nuclear Power Plant, Oldest In U.S., Closing 10 Years Early

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TRENTON, N.J. — Electricity company Exelon said Wednesday it will close the nation's oldest nuclear power plant in 2019 – 10 years earlier than planned – but will not have to build costly cooling towers for it.

The Chicago-based company said changing markets and upkeep costs for the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in the Forked River section of Lacey Township have caused its value to decline. The company issued a statement confirming the shutdown plans after The Associated Press reported them earlier in the day, citing two people with direct knowledge of them.

The aging plant, which went online in 1969, will not be required to build one or more cooling towers to replace its current technology, which draws 1.4 billion gallons of water a day from Barnegat Bay, killing billions of aquatic creatures each year.

The plant, 60 miles east of Philadelphia and 75 miles south of New York City, "faces a unique set of economic conditions and changing environmental regulations that make ending operations in 2019 the best option for the company, employees and shareholders," Exelon Corp. president Chris Crane said.

He said low market prices and demand and the plant's need for continuing large capital expenditures have reduced its value.

"Also, potential additional environmental compliance costs based on evolving water cooling regulatory requirements – at both the federal and state government levels – created significant regulatory and economic uncertainty," Crane said.

Because Exelon agreed to speed up the plant's shutdown, Crane said, New Jersey officials backed off their demand that it build one or more cooling towers to replace the current system of sucking water from the bay into the plant and discharging it. The state says that process kills billions of shrimp and tens of thousands of fish, crabs and clams each year, and environmentalists have long wanted Oyster Creek to switch to cooling towers.

Exelon had balked at the state's insistence on cooling towers, saying they are prohibitively costly, and said it would shutter the plant rather than build them.

The company says the $800 million it would cost to build the towers is more than the plant is worth, and it asked the state to withdraw its demand last January.

But environmentalists say the job could be done for about $200 million.

No specific shutdown date in 2019 has been set.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted the Oyster Creek station a new 20-year license in April 2009, rejecting concerns by opponents centered on corrosion to a metal enclosure that keeps superheated radioactive steam within a containment building.

Exelon 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 that caused the corrosion.

Over the past year, the plant has been cleaning up the remnants of a leak of radioactive tritium from underground pipes that has since made its way to a major underground water source, although no wells or drinking water supplies have been tainted.

Tritium occurs naturally in the environment at very low levels and may be released as steam from nuclear reactors. It also can leak into soil and groundwater.

The leaks have prompted the NRC to order its staff to look for better ways to detect and prevent leaks in buried pipes at all U.S. nuclear power plants.

Oyster Creek's boiling-water reactor is considered obsolete by today's standards. But the plant generates enough electricity to power 600,000 homes a year and provides 9 percent of New Jersey's electricity.

Oyster Creek went online Dec. 1, 1969, the same day as the Nine Mile Point Nuclear Generating Station near Oswego, N.Y. 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.

It would have been 60 years old had it remained open until the end of its current license.

Lacey Township Committeeman Brian Reid, an opponent of the cooling towers proposal, said it was "a shame" that the plant would be shutting early.

"Ten years earlier? That really doesn't surprise me," Reid said. "They would have had to spend a lot of money on those towers, and business is business."

On Thursday, the administration of Gov. Chris Christie was to reveal plans to protect the health of Barnegat Bay, including an endorsement of reduced nitrogen amounts in fertilizer sold in New Jersey and restrictions on how it can be applied and a program to fund the purchase of environmentally sensitive areas near the bay. The proposal also would include rules requiring post-construction restoration of soil to prevent water from running off into waterways.

Tom Fote, commissioner of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, called the plan "a step in the right direction." He applauded the fertilizer and soil compaction bills but said he'd hoped the plant would be required to build cooling towers.

Sierra Club chapter director Jeff Tittel scoffed at the Oyster Creek deal, saying Exelon "gets to operate the plant for 10 years, then walk away with a pile of cash at the expense of the bay."

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Associated Press writer Bruce Shipkowski in Trenton contributed

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