State officials discuss nuclear emergency preparedness in N.J.

Because New Jersey generates more than half of its electrical needs from nuclear energy, a joint Assembly committee Wednesday examined

Because New Jersey generates more than half of its electrical needs from nuclear energy, a joint Assembly committee Wednesday examined the state’s level of emergency preparedness in the wake of the devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant damage in Japan.

State officials, including Homeland Security Department head Charles McKenna and Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin, said that among other things, the Japan tragedy focused attention on possibly expanding the 10-mile evacuation zone to as much as 50 miles, re-examining the unresolved problem of storing spent fuel at reactor sites, and other issues.

There will be a mock exercise in September at Oyster Creek, the nation’s oldest nuclear power plant, officials said.

According to Martin, compared to the Japanese plant, the N.J. plants have advanced safety systems including hardened vents to handle pressure, redundant pump capabilities, and more.

In addition, DEP’s Martin said that the governor ordered formation of a task force last month to examine preparedness, but Assemblyman John McKeon, (D-27), questioned what he called the “government-only” nature of the panel.

The hearing was led by Upendra J. Chivukula, (D-17), chairman of the Assembly Telecom & Utilities Committee, Assembly Homeland Security & State Preparedness Committee Chairwoman Annette Quijano, (D-20), Union; and Environment & Solid Waste Committee Chairman  McKeon.

New Jersey’s four plants are in Oyster Creek in Lacey Township, Hope Creek in Lower Alloways Creek Township, and the Salem Units One and Two reactors, also in Lower Alloways Creek Township. Exelon Corp. operates Oyster Creek, which is the nation’s oldest nuclear power plant; PSEG operates the three others.

Martin said the likelier scenario for New Jersey is a hurricane since there is a low probability of the kind of quake and tsunami that hit Japan. Still, he said they will consider worst-case scenarios in order to be prepared.

“We don’t have the type of seismic activity in New Jersey they have in Japan,’’ McKenna added.

Questions were raised about how long it would take to evacuate residents of Long Beach Island, and the state witnesses said that in light of the most recent Census data evacuation times will have to be re-examined. An evacuation timetable of 9 and a half hours had been estimated based on old data, they said.

Although there is not a great chance of a Japanese-level problem here, McKeon said, “it is not an overreach’’ to raise the issues and assess preparedness. He also questioned the timetable for completely evacuating a location such as Long Beach Island.

State officials discuss nuclear emergency preparedness in N.J.