One of the oldest nuclear power plants in the country will be shutting down more than a year ahead of schedule.
Exelon, the largest nuclear utility in the country, said Friday that it would shut down the Oyster Creek power station in New Jersey in October, more than a year ahead of schedule.
The power plant decided to close early, even though it is licensed by the federal government to provide electricity through 2029. The early closure stems from costly regulations in New Jersey requiring it to install new cooling towers.
Exelon entered into an agreement with the state's environmental regulators in 2010 to phase out the plant's operations, after it decided that it could not justify the cost of meeting the new water cooling rules. It instead agreed to a planned phaseout in which it would close the plant in December 2019.
But on Friday, things changed, and now the company wants to close the plant more than a year earlier than under the agreement with the state. It explained that the shutdown decision was made to help employees in finding new employment, while dealing with higher maintenance cost and lower prices for electricity.
"This shutdown timeline will give Oyster Creek employees a better opportunity to pursue open positions across the Exelon family of companies," the company said. "The decision will also help Exelon better manage resources as fuel and maintenance costs continue to rise amid historically low power prices."
The plant employs 500 employees and can produce electricity to serve up to 600,000 homes in the Garden State and surrounding areas.
The announcement of the closure follows last week's bankruptcy of the Philadelphia Energy refinery, one of the largest refineries on the East Coast. The Oyster Creek plant is nearby, due east of Philadelphia in Ocean County, N.J.
The nuclear power industry also has had to endure low natural gas prices and the rise of more wind and solar electricity that have bitten into its market, making nuclear plants less economical. Exelon has blamed federal renewable subsidies for depressing prices in the wholesale power market, creating an artificial price support that undermines a free market.
But even without the wind subsidies, many utilities are switching to low-cost natural gas, which now supports the bulk of the electricity produced in the eastern part of the country. The low cost of the fuel from the shale energy boom has kept the cost low and therefore more competitive than other power resources.
Environmentalists and other staunch opponents of nuclear power plants welcomed the decision, pointing out that the Oyster Creek plant is the same design as the one that experienced multiple reactor core meltdowns and explosions during the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan.
The Oyster Creek plant is the "first and the oldest Fukushima-design nuclear reactor in the world," a General Electric model called the Mark I, said the anti-nuclear energy group Beyond Nuclear in reacting to Exelon's new closure timeline.
“It’s clear that Oyster Creek and the entire, aging U.S. nuclear reactor fleet is hemorrhaging financially,” said Paul Gunter, the head of the group's reactor oversight program. “The fact that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the nuclear industry continue to prioritize financial margins over public safety margins is a growing concern, especially at the remaining 29 Fukushima style reactors still operating in the U.S.”