The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission began a special inspection Tuesday of the nation's oldest nuclear power plant, looking into how it decided when to issue an alert as floodwaters from Superstorm Sandy rose nearby.
Three inspectors were looking into how Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station owner Exelon Corp. handled emergency notification during the storm. The reactor in the Forked River section of Lacey Township, N.J., wasn't running when Sandy swept over New Jersey because of a planned refueling and maintenance outage.
"Nevertheless, there are certain observations involving procedures and on-site activities that surfaced during the event warranting a closer look," said Bill Dean, the NRC administrator for the region including Oyster Creek. He added that there were no immediate safety concerns.
The agency said that as water rose on Oct. 29, operators declared an "unusual event" — the lowest of four levels of emergency classification — just before 7 p.m., when the level topped 4.5 feet above mean sea level. The plant declared an "alert" — the second-lowest level of emergency classification — at 8:45 p.m., when the water level reached 6 feet above mean sea level.
Such rising water levels could hinder or stop systems used to pump cooling water into the plant.
The water level rose due to a combination of a rising tide, wind direction and storm surge. By early the next morning it had receded to levels that warranted the cancellation of the alert and the unusual event declaration.
Neil Sheehan, an NRC spokesman, said that aside from some downed power lines and sirens that were knocked offline, the plant did not suffer serious physical damage.
"We're going to look at how they prepared for the storm, their emergency preparedness and overall command and control," he said.
Plant spokeswoman Suzanne D'Ambrosio said Oyster Creek also is doing its own review.
"Oyster Creek's robust defenses, together with our preparations and performance during Hurricane Sandy, helped ensure the safety of the plant, our workers and the public," she said. "We are currently performing a comprehensive, mandatory review of our actions during the storm and we welcome an independent review from the NRC as well. These reviews are common after major events and we are committed to implementing any procedural or performance improvements identified that might make our facility even safer."
The nuclear agency plans to issue a report on the results of its special inspection within 45 days of its completion.
Oyster Creek is due to shut down by the end of 2019 instead of 2029 as called for in its current license. The plant agreed to the early shutdown in return for not being required to build costly cooling towers that would minimize the impact on fish and other marine life in the creek.
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, making it the oldest of the nation's 104 commercial nuclear reactors that are still operating.
Wayne Parry can be reached at https://twitter.com/WayneParryAC.