Steps taken to counteract the surge of water at the Oyster Creek Nuclear Power Plant in Lacey during Superstorm Sandy get a conditional thumbs-up from federal inspectors.

Oyster Creek Nuclear Power Plant, Lacey Township, NJ (Exelon)

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission Special Inspection Team concluded that staff performance was "acceptable and that emergency action level declarations were timely." The report goes on to note spots "of minor significance" for improvement involving equipment and organization.

NRC dispatched the team in the aftermath of the chain of events that led to the issuing of an Alert notification. Water in the intake structure that feeds the circulating-water and service-water pumps rose to four and a half feet above mean sea level, triggering the declaration of an Unusual Event. The Alert was activated when the level reached seven and a half feet.

According to information released during the storm, the power outages that blanketed the coast also affected the generating station. A backup generator in the maintenance yard failed, and more than half of the plant's 43 sirens in the 10-mile emergency notification radius were rendered useless if they had been needed.

Still, says NRC's Neil Sheehan, at no point was the water high enough to threaten critical operations. In an e-mail to WOBM News, Sheehan noted "...the service water pumps would not have experienced flloding until the water got to about the 10-foot level." The pumps in question cool the spent fuel pool and the shutdown cooling system, he explains, and weren't functioning because the generating station was off-line for scheduled refueling.

"The plant's maximum estimated flood level due to a worst-case hurricane is 22 feet above mean sea level," said Sheehan. "In addition, the plant grade is one foot higher, at 23 feet...and the floor level for the plant is at least 6 inches higher than that."

Shore-based Representative Jon Runyan (R-3) took note of the report and characterized it as a chance to modify operations for the better. "I encourage the NRC and Oyster Creek to learn from this inspection and use the lessons of Hurricane Sandy to help improve the overall safety of the plant," said Runyan in a statement. "While Hurricane Sandy was a highly unusual event, we must be prepared should another natural disaster occur.”

Storm concerns dominated the January 7 New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection's safety hearing in Toms River regarding the power plant.

Under an agreement brokered by the DEP, Exelon is expected to cease operations at Oyster Creek in 2019, 10 years ahead of the scheduled expiration of the license renewal issued by the NRC.  The deal permits Exelon to continue operating it without building self-contained water towers to cool the reactor, using water from Barnegat Bay as it has since 1969.