Politics & Public Affairs

Jersey Journalism Suffers Another Blow


Photo courtesy of Pixabay



Governor Phil Murphy’s 2020 New Jersey budget proposal fails to fund a new bill that would expand state support of local journalism, much to the dismay of proponents of the bill, which Murphy signed into law in July 2018.

Leaders of Free Press Action Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to making media and news more accessible, expressed disappointment in the lack of funding for the Civic Information Consortium, a nonprofit created by last year’s Civic Information Bill.

The consortium is conceived as a partnership among five New Jersey institutions: The College of New Jersey, Montclair State University, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rutgers University and Rowan University. With their combined resources, along with ideas from grant applicants, the goal is to support more local journalism around the state. Layoffs and industry consolidation have significantly reduced the number of local reporters working in New Jersey.

Prior to the signing of the bill, Murphy pledged $5 million for the creation of the consortium. However, upon signing it, the governor said funds were not yet available. Supporters’ hopes were further dashed when the governor made no mention of the consortium in his 2020 budget proposal earlier this month.

Mike Rispoli, director of Free Press Action Fund’s News Voices initiative, says the project is essential to providing news access to underserved and low-income communities. To make it a reality, he says, supporters must be heard.

“The only way this is going to happen is if people contact their lawmakers,” says Rispoli.

The bill’s sponsors, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald, are in talks with other legislative leaders and the governor to add funding for the consortium to the 2020 budget. Shane Mitchell, legislative director for Weinberg, says the senator hopes to secure funding for the project by July 1, the deadline for budget approval.

“The senator [Weinberg] believes strongly in the Civic Information Consortium and hopes to get it adequately funded,” Mitchell says. “We are going to fight for it again.”

The governor’s office did not provide a comment by deadline.

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What’s Being Done to Help NJ’s Food Deserts?


NJ's Food Deserts

The Incollingos’s Family Owned Market, which closed in September 2017, left Salem shoppers with few options for finding fresh, nutritious food.
Photo by Kriston Jae Bethel



Jose Cruz parks his bicycle in front of the Dollar Tree that anchors an otherwise spartan shopping plaza on East Broadway in the historic South Jersey city of Salem. Inside, the 56-year-old fills his plastic shopping basket with a pint of whole milk, a quart of prune juice, a six-pack of orange drink, processed pork roll and salami, frozen tater tots, canned beans and rice. That will have to do for this shopping trip. Like many who live in Salem County, Cruz has scant choices for fulfilling his grocery needs.

Next door, the dusty windows and silent cash registers of Incollingo’s Family Owned Market, which closed in September 2017, reminds the city of Salem’s 4,931 residents on a daily basis that their food options are severely limited.

“It’s very difficult,” says Cruz, who lost both his factory job and his driver’s license in the last six months. “When that store was open, I could buy everything I needed: pork chops, chicken, vegetables. Now if I want those things, I have to take the bus.”

When Incollingo’s closed, the Walmart in Pennsville, four miles away, became the closest supermarket, thrusting Salem onto New Jersey’s long list of food deserts. So far, no grocer has stepped forward to fill the empty store located just outside the historic downtown of this county seat, where the median household income is $26,419. But that might change with the state Assembly’s recent passage of a raft of bills related to food insecurity and access, one of which provides incentives to grocery-store owners to open in places like Salem.

“Despite being a wealthy state, we have too many people who live below the poverty line and really struggle to have access to healthy foods,” says Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-South Amboy), sponsor of the Food Desert Elimination Act, the key piece of legislation. “I think this will go a long way toward alleviating that situation.” At deadline, the bills were awaiting Senate action.

A look inside the abandoned Incollingos’s Family Owned Market in Salem. Photo by Kriston Jae Bethel

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food deserts as low-income areas where more than a third of the population does not have easy access to fresh food. For urban settings, that means no full-service grocery store within one mile; for rural areas, it is beyond 10 miles, says the USDA, which has identified 134 food deserts in New Jersey.

The overall number of food-insecure individuals in New Jersey is close to 10 percent of the state’s population. A 2018 study by the Reinvestment Fund, a policy and investment organization focusing on low-income communities, found that as of 2016, 879,188 New Jersey residents were living in limited supermarket-access areas. And nearly 1.1 million in New Jersey are considered food insecure, many relying on food-assistance programs. In 2017, 730,000 state residents participated in SNAP, the federal food stamp program. Another 134,000 received benefits from WIC, the federal nutrition program for women, infants and children, according to Adele LaTourette, director of Hunger Free NJ.

For many in these programs, food procurement is not easy, says LaTourette. Beneficiaries of the WIC program, for example, must shop for specifically defined nutritional items. “It’s a challenge and a half to do that at a bodega,” says LaTourette, “but it’s also a challenge and a half to schlep your children on a bus to a supermarket to buy those groceries and then return on the bus with your bags and kids.” LaTourette sees the new legislation as a first step in improving the shopping experience. 

The Food Desert Elimination bill offers store owners four years of property tax credits for being the first to open in a designated food desert. (The New Jersey Economic Development Authority would be tasked with listing 75 food deserts throughout the state.) A second incentive gives those who plant the first flag the opportunity to buy a special liquor-license permit to sell alcohol in the new store. This element proved controversial, with some questioning the wisdom of offering alcohol in stores meant to provide healthy food options to populations that may already face substance-abuse challenges. Coughlin dismisses this line of thinking, noting, “It’s not going to change people’s drinking habits. People who drink now are going to continue to drink. It’s the healthy food access that’s important. And the liquor license helps the stores be sustainable.”

In the food desert of Williamstown, in Gloucester County, residents line up with wheel barrows to cart groceries from the Hope Mobile, a food pantry on wheels. Photo by Kriston Jae Bethel

Remaining sustainable in these tenuous communities is the greatest challenge. Just ask Jason Ravitz, who has struggled mightily since opening a PriceRite store on Mt. Ephraim Avenue in Camden with his two brothers in October 2014. Ravitz’s store replaced a shuttered Pathmark, becoming the first full-service supermarket to open in this city in 45 years. 

To help cover start-up and staff-training costs, Ravitz Family Markets secured a $100,000 grant from the state Economic Development Authority in combination with the Reinvestment Fund and TD Bank. (The six-year grant is soon to expire.) The grant has helped, Ravitz says, but not enough to offset the $500,000 loss the store has endured each year. “We’ve been discussing exiting the market,” says the 47-year-old grocer, whose family also operates five ShopRites in Burlington and Camden counties.

“I love that store, and I love my employees there. But we’re not doing well in terms of sales volume. We need to at least break even,” says Ravitz. He says he has gone to local officials for help, “but no one’s listening.” 

Among the challenges Ravitz cites are an ever-changing food stamp program (about 50 percent of his sales are paid for with SNAP benefits), transportation challenges that prevent North Camden residents from coming to his PriceRite location, and the inability to attract shoppers from neighboring suburban towns like Collingswood or Haddon Township, despite what he calls an “aggressive marketing campaign.”

“Despite being a wealthy state, we have too many people who live below the poverty line and really struggle to have access to healthy foods”—Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin

Because his store already exists in this former food desert, Ravitz would not qualify for the tax credits offered by the new legislation. Commenting on the legislation, the New Jersey Food Council recommended allowing existing stores in food deserts to benefit from the incentives as well. But the bill contains no such provision.

“If retailers are already operating in these distressed areas and they’re struggling right now, why not offer them these tax incentives and liquor licenses to help make it work?” asks Mary Ellen Peppard, vice president of the NJ Food Council, which represents 1,400 food retailers and distributors throughout the state. While appreciating the Legislature’s efforts to provide retailers with new opportunities, Peppard noted that the tax incentive, while helpful, may not be enough.

“There are a lot of challenges when trying to open in these low-income areas,” she says. “They have to make sure they have SNAP and WIC in place. Do they have a sufficient volume of customers? A means of transportation? Appropriate parking? Then there are education issues, so they’ll need dieticians in the stores. Our members would love to be in every food desert in the state, but it’s just not possible.”

Peppard’s skepticism is echoed by others working on food issues throughout the state who feel that tapping into the existing food-distribution system in these underserved communities is a better way to go. Providing healthier, fresh foods to their food-pantry clients has become a top priority for both the Food Bank of South Jersey and MEND Hunger Relief Network over the last few years. 

A bright-green school bus splattered with paintings of fruits and vegetables has been pulling up outside many of Essex County’s 19 food-pantry sites that are part of the MEND network.  Dubbed the Green Bean, the school bus was donated to MEND in 2017 and has been on the road since May 2018, getting fresh food into the communities it serves. When clients come to pick up their monthly allotment of pasta, peanut butter, tuna, cereal, and canned fruits and vegetables, they might also receive a box filled with fresh apples, cauliflower, zucchini, onions, potatoes, fresh chicken, or whatever else gets donated or grown by local community gardens and farms. 

“I had a resident from West Orange call me in tears saying, ‘I can’t believe someone brought me such nice food,’” recalls Robin Peacock, MEND’s executive director. “It’s one way we can make a little difference on this issue.”

Supporting more than 150 food pantries in Burlington, Camden, Gloucester and Salem counties, the Food Bank of South Jersey provides 12.5 million pounds of food to about 200,000 people annually. But while many of the pantry sites are well established, it has been more difficult reaching into the food deserts, 21 of which have been identified in the umbrella organization’s coverage area. Enter the Hope Mobile. In operation since 2010, the tractor-trailer truck arrives before dawn, dropping off thousands of pounds of food for those living in urban and more remote food-desert areas. 

NJ's Food Deserts

Hope Mobile volunteer Reda Ouda also stocks up on food from the service, which started in 2010. Photo by Kriston Jae Bethel

“We provide the balance,” says Lavinia Awosanya, FBSJ’s director of strategic partnerships. “In the urban areas, they lack produce, and in the rural areas, they lack staples, so we make sure we’re filling in with what is needed in each community.”

In New Brunswick, Cara Cuite, an assistant extension specialist at Rutgers Co-Operative Extension, says local stores, commonly known as corner stores, are where many of the city’s residents shop. 

“There are good reasons people shop at the corner store,” says Cuite. “There’s a level of trust. They know you there; they might know your kids. If you don’t speak English, they might speak your language. And it’s convenient. So the big question is, how do you get these stores to have more fresh food for sale?”

The answer has been the Healthy Corner Store Initiative, a local program sponsored in part by Rutgers Co-Operative Extension and the New Brunswick Food Alliance. The program offers displays, recipes and educational materials to encourage shopkeepers to sell more fresh foods and shoppers to purchase these items.  

Educating shoppers is also a primary concern of Biancha Jackson, the in-store nutritionist at a ShopRite in Newark’s University Heights neighborhood. Shoppers (or even those who purchase nothing) can take advantage of Jackson’s free dietary counseling as part of ShopRite’s chain-wide on-site dietician program. 

Jackson says 9 out of 10 of her clients are food insecure, many are obese, and most have type 2 diabetes, hypertension or both. She sees some clients on a regular basis; others might stop by for advice on how to stretch their SNAP benefits or to learn the difference in nutritional benefits between name-brand vs. store-brand goods (none). For some, she has to break the news that a strawberry Starburst doesn’t cover their fruit intake for the day.

“A lot of people think, Wow, how could I not know this? But it’s because they didn’t get adequate nutritional education growing up,” says Jackson. “A program like this is great because you’re getting people where they’re shopping, before they’ve even purchased anything. And that’s where it all starts.”

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Settlement Reached in Frat-House Rape Case


The mother of Cherelle Jovanna Locklear, the William Paterson University freshman who hanged herself in 2015 after she was allegedly raped during a party at the school’s Sigma Pi fraternity house, may never experience the kind of closure that comes with the peaceful acceptance of a loved one’s death. But this week, the law firm representing Marquesa C. Jackson-Locklear in her case against the fraternity and the university arrived at a settlement for the grieving mother.

Bradley Rice, of the Roseland law firm Nagel Rice LLP and a lead attorney in the case, says the university, located in Wayne, will pay $800,000 and install a memorial on campus for Locklear; terms of the settlement with the fraternity are confidential.

“I don’t want to speak for her, but I think she’s ready to move on,” Rice says of Jackson-Locklear.

In September 2015, Cherelle Locklear attended an off-campus party where the alleged rape occurred. A month later, after attempting suicide with sleeping pills, she sought help from the university’s victim-services coordinator. The following month, the 21-year-old hanged herself with a necktie in a dorm bathroom. Rice says members of the fraternity are believed to have videotaped the alleged assault of Locklear, and that the social pressure of knowing they had the tape—and purportedly had shared it with others—“got to her.” He won’t say whether the tape was available as evidence in the case.

Rice’s firm contends there may have been an environment at William Paterson that led Locklear to believe it was better to keep quiet. Despite knowledge of the alleged rape, university officials and police “did not engage in even a modicum or the investigation required by law, and took no steps evidencing any concern for Cherelle’s personal security and safety,” the suit alleged. The university, in a statement after the settlement, denied any wrongdoing or liability.

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Newark Judge Victoria Pratt Serves Up a New Kind of Justice


As a municipal judge in Newark, Victoria Pratt developed a passionate approach to sentencing. The world noticed.

Judge Victoria Pratt revisits the Newark courthouse where her ideas on sentencing were put to the test during her tenure as chief judge.
Photo by Christopher Farber





When Mexico, Kenya and Great Britain set out to improve their criminal justice systems in recent years, the place they decided they most wanted to emulate was Newark.

That’s right; Newark, with its drugs and gangs and violence, its deteriorating buildings contrasting with its shiny new condos, and its lingering memories of the riots of 1967. Newark is where, despite long odds, a judge who presided from 2009 until 2017 at the municipal courthouse at 31 Green Street sent rumors rumbling internationally that a better way of dispensing justice was being put to the test.

Locals knew Judge Victoria F. Pratt by reputation before international admirers caught on. “Everybody knows her here, and everybody says the same thing: Judge Pratt don’t play,” says Trevor Powell, a 27-year-old Newark native who stood before Pratt in 2014 on a drug charge. 

Pratt’s steely but compassionate approach to sentencing is still in practice at 31 Green Street. And it is still attracting court officials from around the world  who want to see for themselves what a radical concept respect can be.

“Judge Pratt taught everyone that individuals, if given a second chance, will seize the opportunity to do better,” says Vivian Sanks King, who acted as second judge while Pratt was chief judge in the courtroom known in Newark as Part Two. Pratt later stepped down to teach her methods in places as farflung as Ukraine and Dubai. In addition to favoring community service over short jail stints for low-level offenders like Powell, Pratt often assigned her defendants to write essays. Powell’s essay, in 2015, explored how good and bad choices affected his life. 

“At the time she told me to write it, I wasn’t happy about it, because I felt it was going to take time away from what I was doing then, which was drugs,” says Powell, who now works in social services and is considering a career as a police officer. “But then I started writing it… It took me back to where I was before I jumped off track.” By the time Powell read the essay to Pratt in her courtroom, he says, “it made me think, Damn. What is wrong with me?”

Pratt is hardly a commanding presence. Everything about her, from her voice to the way she wears her hair, suggests softness. She laughs easily and often and is a master of good manners, careful not to interrupt when someone else is speaking. She organizes her thoughts before speaking and shares them with clear intent. 

She was born in Newark in the 1970s to an African-American father who was a garbage man and a Dominican mother who was a beautician. She spent childhood weekends at her mother’s salon, taking rollers out of customers’ hair and dashing around the corner to buy perm solution from the local beauty supply. 

But Pratt had a fierce determination for self-improvement. After graduating from Rutgers University with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1994, she applied to law school. When she was rejected, she spent a year teaching dance to children in a Hispanic community center in Newark, as well as English as a second language to women entering the work force after welfare. In 1995, she gained admission to Rutgers School of Law in Newark. A few years after earning her JD degree in 1998, she went to work for then governor Jim McGreevey as an assistant counselor. Even in her 20s, “she was bright and driven and a leader,” says McGreevey. “She brought that same focus and passion to reshaping the judiciary system.”

“I made a deal with myself as a judge: If I was going to give someone a jail sentence, I needed to look that person in the eye when I did it.”

By 2005, Pratt’s sense of justice was making itself known around New Jersey. After working for McGreevey, she took a job as the Camden School District’s compliance officer. There, she uncovered a scheme that so inflamed her, she had to return to Newark for safety.

“I found that people in the school district were stealing field trip money from poor children and stealing from the district,” she says. “These were children who don’t often go on field trips because their parents can’t afford it. A lot of people lost their jobs, and a principal went to jail. I fought back so hard that people were like, ‘You need to go back home before something happens.’”  

There was corruption in Newark, too. But home was a more familiar setting for squaring off with those intent on targeting the vulnerable. 

“My parents both had about an eighth-grade education, and my mother had a strong Spanish accent,” she says. “People would try to take advantage of their limitations, and I was like this little dragon who defended them. I would be like, ‘No, you’re not going to take advantage of my mom because she said ‘50’ and it sounded like ‘15’ to you,” she says. At her mother Elsa’s shop, “I was the parent sometimes.” 

If the role of dragon defender was ingrained early, the role of ally to the disenfranchised came later. In 2006, Pratt was working as a lawyer at the Newark Municipal Council. Then-mayor Cory Booker, had the Community Justice Center in Red Hook, Brooklyn, on his radar. Her boss, Mildred Crump told her to review the court system there. 

In 2000, the nonprofit Center for Court Innovation had set up a program in Red Hook to try to turn what was widely known as a rough community into a stable one. Its judge, Alex Calabrese, handled everything except the most serious crimes. Instead of jail, Calabrese, who is still presiding, gave most defendants sanctions like community service and anger-management classes meant to stop the revolving door of 30-day-and-under jail sentences. Calabrese also assigned essays and, as Pratt would later, made a habit of congratulating defendants—“clients,” as he and Pratt call them—for small victories, like passing a drug test or applying to get a professional license. What impressed Pratt most: “Judge Calabrese asked defendants what they thought was best for them,” she says. “I had never seen anything like it.”

In 2007, Booker appointed Pratt to the municipal court bench. She spent seven months in traffic court before moving to Part Two. The Center for Court Innovation had already been working on setting up a community court in Newark under an agency it called Newark Community Solutions. But the services it provided in Red Hook, like drug counseling and therapy, weren’t in place in Newark when Pratt started presiding. Still, she made the court her star vehicle.

 Greg Berman, Court Innovation’s director, saw it coming. “Around the time we started in Newark, we had already been hearing about this charismatic official,” says Berman. “She has this winning combination where you get a clear sense of her intellectual curiosity as well as her very real appreciation for life on the street. She maintains the dignity of the court with a very human touch.”

By 2015, an average of 70 percent of Part Two’s approximately 1,200 defendants per year—generally charged with nonviolent offenses like drug possession, prostitution and shoplifting—were completing their mandates and avoiding jail, thanks to Pratt’s sentences. A typical sentence would be two days of community service combined with a three-day counseling program to target a problem like prostitution or drug abuse, plus a one-page essay. Berman calls the 70 percent level of compliance “extremely high.” So high, in fact, that by the time Pratt left Part Two, Berman was sending hundreds of officials interested in overhauling their courts to Newark to watch and learn. 

Pratt says a voice in her head prompted her to leave Part Two. “It was saying, ‘Do more, do more.’” One recent endeavor: A trip to Dubai, for a conference on “court excellence.” She was invited after the organizer had seen her 2016 TED Talk, “How Judges Can Show Respect.” The talk has been translated into 11 languages.

Doing more outside of New Jersey, where she lives in a suburb near Newark with her husband and Elsa, who is suffering from dementia, doesn’t mean Pratt will never return to Newark Community Solutions. 

“I miss working directly with the people who came before me to help them see their gifts and potential,” she says. She remembers prostitutes abused by their stepfathers and addicted parents led astray by the idleness of unemployment.  She remembers virtually everybody who stood before her, she says—some because they are familiar to most Newark judges (one woman she saw had 101 prior arrests), and some simply because she stopped to look them in the eyes. 

“To me, looking someone in the eye is a sign of respect. I made a deal with myself as a judge: If I was going to give someone a jail sentence, I needed to look that person in the eye when I did it,” she says. “If you do something adverse to someone and you don’t look them in the eye, they might think, ‘she knows she did me dirty.’” 

Pratt says few judges act that way. After a recent trip to Ukraine, a judge had reported they don’t often think to ask a defendant how he’s doing, or to look that person in the eye. “They said, ‘I’m so busy thinking about how I’m going to rule, or how I’m going to communicate what I’m ruling, that it doesn’t occur to me,’” she says.  

Though it can be reduced to a single word more often associated with the late Aretha Franklin, Pratt’s respectful approach to criminal justice carries a fearsome strength. 

“I laugh about ‘Judge Pratt don’t play,’” Pratt says. Then the laugh gives way to a favorite story. “One day this guy gets on the bus in Newark and he says, ‘I ain’t got no money. I ain’t paying,’” she says. “And someone else on the bus says, ‘Oh, man. Don’t do that. If you don’t pay, the driver’s going to push a button, and a light’s going to go off on the top of the bus, and the police are going to come and take you down to Old Judge Pratt, and she don’t give nothing less than eight days.’ Then all the passengers reached into their pockets and paid his bus fare,” she says

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After the Shutdown: Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station


Exelon shut the Oyster Creek generating station in September. Now it wants to sell the site to Holtec, which would be responsible for all cleanup.
Courtesy of Stan Honda/ Getty images





December 23, 1969, was a blustery day in Ocean County, with winds gusting up to 20 miles per hour across Barnegat Bay and the temperature dipping into the teens. It was a slow news days as the country paused to celebrate Christmas. Reports emerged that a federal grand jury had issued new subpoenas in a corruption probe that would ultimately take down Newark mayor Hugh Addonizio. In Chicago, anti-war activist Abbie Hoffman took the stand in the notorious trial of the Chicago Seven. Across the Pacific, the Viet Cong agreed to a three-day Christmas truce as President Richard Nixon vowed to wind down the Vietnam War. On the U.S. pop charts, Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane” reigned as number 1.

Two years behind schedule, way over budget and with little fanfare, Jersey Central Power & Light put its Oyster Creek nuclear generating station online that day at 12:01 am, producing more than 500 megawatts of electrical power. It marked the first operational use of General Electric’s Mark 1 boiling-water reactor, promoted as a smaller, cheaper alternative to its predecessors. 

Nuclear power was already old hat. Oyster Creek, located in Forked River, an unincorporated community in Lacey Township, was the nation’s 16th commercial nuclear-fission power plant; another 48 reactors were under construction, and 41 were in the planning stage. The Oyster Creek startup garnered only a brief mention on page 33 of the New York Times.

Over its lifetime, Oyster Creek would generate more than 192 terawatt hours of electricity—enough to continuously power about 600,000 homes for five decades. It would also produce 750 metric tons (1.7 million pounds) of radioactive nuclear waste. It experienced no major operational problems.

At noon this past September 17, operators shut down the Oyster Creek turbine. Three minutes later, two “scram” buttons were simultaneously pushed, inserting 122 control rods into the reactor core and aborting the nuclear reaction inside the vessel. After nearly a half-century of operation, the nation’s oldest active nuclear power plant went offline for good. 

That began the onerous task of decontaminating and dismantling the plant—a process known as decommissioning. The shutdown also created severe financial angst among local officials, who had grown dependent on Oyster Creek’s tax revenue. And it offered the latest painful reminder that the United States lacks a plan to deal with a growing stockpile of radioactive nuclear waste. 

The shutdown left New Jersey with three operating nuclear reactors, which produce 37 percent of the state’s electricity. With the emergence in recent years of cheap and abundant natural gas, along with a growing appetite for renewable energy, plants like Oyster Creek have lost their competitive edge. The nuclear age is on the wane in the United States, at least in the commercial energy sector. Today, there are 60 active U.S. nuclear plants with 98 reactors, down from a high of 112 operational plants in 1991. Only two reactor plants are under construction.

Oyster Creek’s license was to expire in 2029. But in 2010, the state Department of Environmental Protection ordered the plant to build cooling towers to protect Barnegat Bay from its warm-water discharges. After estimating the cost at more than $800 million, Exelon Corp., the current owner/operator, reached an agreement to close the plant in 2019. That was advanced to 2018 in part to manage costs.

Courtesy of Holtec

A CHANGE IN PLANS

Shortly after the shutdown, plant employees began the process of cooling down the reactor and removing all nuclear fuel for storage in the plant’s used-fuel pool, a bath of highly purified, chemically balanced, fresh water. The 40-foot-deep pool—with reinforced concrete walls 2-feet thick—contains 2,430 fuel assemblies, more than half of the spent fuel that has accumulated over five decades.

Exelon estimated decommissioning would take 60 years. Its method, a process known as SAFSTOR, includes waiting for the radiation—both in the fuel pool and the reactor—to diminish naturally over decades, reducing the contamination risk for workers dismantling the facility. That plan changed dramatically last summer when Exelon reached an agreement to sell the plant to Holtec International, which has a technology campus in Camden, and proposes to complete the task in less than eight years by expediting the transfer of the spent fuel from the pool to dry storage casks before its radiation has appreciably decayed. Holtec and Exelon have asked the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for an expedited approval of the sale by May 1,  prompting concern among environmentalists. 

“What’s the big hurry?” asks Janet Tauro, board chair of Clean Water Action NJ. “Holtec may be the best thing in the world, but we’re talking about 1.7 million pounds of nuclear waste.” Lacey Township, the Sierra Club and Concerned Citizens of Lacey have asked the NRC to hold a public hearing. Tauro and Clean Water Action New Jersey have asked the state attorney general for a review of the Exelon/Holtec deal.

“The NRC will try to complete a review of the application by May 1,” says NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan.  “But we have made it clear to Exelon and Holtec that achieving that will be contingent upon us receiving the information we need.” That could include information about technical aspects of the decommissioning and adequacy of funding for the project.

Exelon and Holtec officials are nonetheless optimistic the deal will be approved on their timetable. Soon, the nuclear license and the 700-acre property would be transferred to Holtec—along with control of a nearly $1 billion decommissioning trust fund generated by utility ratepayers over decades. Holtec would assume all liability for the spent nuclear fuel—and any potential accidents.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, says he’s fine with the expedited decommissioning schedule. “It’s very doable and it’s been done many times throughout the country,” he notes. But he would like to see the storage site for the nuclear waste elevated and upgraded to withstand potential flooding or a terrorist attack. According to an AP report, the Sierra Club and several community groups also say the $1 billion fund is insufficient for cleanup and storage.

Tittel is “most concerned,” however, about the transfer of Oyster Creek’s ownership from Exelon, an industry behemoth with deep pockets, to Holtec, a relatively small limited-liability company, which will subcontract the work to an even smaller subsidiary. “If there is some kind of accident, there will be no one to hold accountable,” he says. 

Kris Singh, who holds more than 90 patents, mostly related to nuclear energy, founded Holtec in 1986. His company has emerged as an industry leader in the management of spent nuclear fuel. Its dry-cask technology is used at 116 nuclear power plants around the world, including 65 in the United States. Those casks would be used to store Oyster Creek’s spent fuel.

But Singh’s company lacks experience in cleaning up closed nuclear plants. That’s why it teamed with a Canadian engineering firm, SNC-Lavalin, to form Comprehensive Decommissioning International (CDI). Holtec has also reached agreements to purchase nuclear plants in Massachusetts and Michigan and perform expedited decommissioning there. The Massachusetts deal is awaiting NRC approval, and the Michigan deal will be submitted at a later date. 

“CDI, headquartered in Camden, has been established to bring the expertise of both companies together to ensure safe, rapid, and economic nuclear plant decommisioning,” says Holtec marketing and communications specialist Caitlin Marmion.

What’s in it for Holtec? The company would, in effect, hire itself and its subsidiary to clean up the site by drawing fees from the decommissioning fund. Holtec also would purchase its own storage casks for the cleanup. And once the cleanup is done, it can profit from the sale of the 700-acre Oyster Creek site.

An exact replica of the control room at Oyster Creek, which, over five decades, churned out enough electricity to continuously power about 600,000 homes. Courtesy of Stan Honda/ Getty images

SOUNDING THE ALARM

Paul Gunter, a longtime environmental activist, policy analyst and nuclear-reactor watchdog for the advocacy group Beyond Nuclear, has been following activities at Oyster Creek for decades. He is calling for a thorough inspection of the plant’s GE Mark 1 reactor before it’s disposed of, citing its well-documented design flaws and a long history of modifications and retrofits. The reactor came under intense international scrutiny in 2011, after three of the same reactors melted down at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. 

Holtec’s decommissioning plan “is like burying a body without an autopsy,” says Gunter. He notes that 21 GE Mark 1 reactors remain operational in the United States. (Holtec’s Marmion points out that the company’s plans to dismantle and dispose of the reactor are “in accordance with regulatory requirements.”)

Gunter is also alarmed by Holtec’s partnership for the decommissioning work. SNC-Lavalin, Gunter says, currently faces federal corruption charges in Canada. Equally disturbing, he says, the company is “barred from doing any contractual work with the World Bank until 2023—again because of global corruption.”

SNC-Lavalin has had a legal cloud over its head since 2015 (the same year it began collaborating with Holtec) when allegations surfaced that former employees paid $150 million in bribes to officials in Libya to influence government policy and win contracts. In one case, a former SNC-Lavalin vice president is awaiting trial on charges he made bribes to the Gaddafi regime. In a separate case, a former SNC-Lavalin vice president of construction pleaded guilty in July to using a forged document following a widespread corruption investigation involving the construction of a super-hospital in Canada.  And in May, Canadian authorities filed charges against SNC-Lavalin after a multiyear probe related to illegal political contributions.

“Is this the company we want to be handling a $1 billion trust fund?” asks Gunter.

Holtec officials say SNC-Lavalin has cleaned house and put its problems in the past. “We are aware of SNC-Lavalin’s history,” Holtec says in a written response. “Lavalin has reshaped the entire leadership team and transformed the entire culture of their business.…We are confident that the changes made in the years prior to establishing CDI will prevent future bad conduct by rogue employees.”

The decommissioning project is not the only joint venture between Holtec and SNC-Lavalin. The two companies are also collaborating on the design and production of a small, nuclear and modular reactor, called SMR-160, at Holtec’s Technology Campus in Camden. The reactor is planned for operation by 2026.

Last February, Holtec signed an agreement in Camden that calls for the state-run nuclear operator in Ukraine to adopt the SMR-160 technology to meet its energy needs. Shortly after, Holtec announced that Ukraine may also become a manufacturing hub for SMR-160 components.

“Holtec is poised to….reinvigorate nuclear power for a world in dire need of a weather-independent and carbon-free source of energy,” CEO Singh told World Nuclear News at the time.  

A nuclear plant technician wears protective gear while working near a used-fuel pool like the one at Oyster Creek. Courtesy of Stan Honda/ Getty images

WASTE PILES UP

The closing of Oyster Creek is more than a local story. It occurs amid the glaring absence of a national strategy for the permanent storage of our growing stockpile of nuclear waste. That stockpile stands at 80,000 metric tons—its radiation lasting thousands of years—and is expected to increase to about 140,000 metric tons over the next several decades as more plants close.

In 1982, Congress directed the Department of Energy to develop a permanent geological repository for used nuclear fuel. In 2002, President George W. Bush signed a law designating Yucca Mountain in Nevada as that site.  In 2010, however, the DOE, after investing $12 billion in the project, shut it down with little explanation. Nevada’s Harry Reid, then the Senate majority leader, is widely credited with scuttling the plan in his home state. 

For now, U.S. nuclear power plants are resorting to on-site storage. Most of their spent fuel is stored in cooling pools and steel-and-concrete casks at 125 sites in 35 states. The NRC claims fuel can be stored safely in this manner for more than 100 years.   

But the U.S. Government Accountability Office informed Congress in April 2017 that “spent nuclear fuel can pose serious risks to humans and the environment….and is a source of billions of dollars of financial liabilities for the U.S. government. According to the National Research Council and others, if not handled and stored properly, this material can spread contamination and cause long-term health concerns in humans or even death.” 

Holtec, which made a name for itself in on-site storage, raised eyebrows last year when it announced its plans to jump into the potentially lucrative decommissioning business. Now, it is looking to take an even bigger leap: It has applied to build and operate a mammoth interim spent-fuel repository on 1,000 acres in New Mexico.  

Holtec initially wants to store 500 canisters of spent nuclear fuel containing up to 8,680 metric tons of uranium from commercial nuclear reactors. If the NRC issues that initial license, Holtec would seek to expand the facility in 9 subsequent phases, each for an additional 500 canisters, to be completed over the course of 20 years. (If the license is approved, Oyster Creek’s spent fuel would be shipped to the site—creating yet another revenue opportunity for Holtec.) If that were to occur, the New Mexico site would swell to 163,700 metric tons—more than double the capacity assigned to Yucca Mountain. 

Opposing Holtec’s interim storage proposal last year became the singular mission of Kevin Kamps, a radioactive-waste specialist at Beyond Nuclear. His reasons are many, but mostly he is concerned that it would establish a “de facto permanent, surface storage dump” without approval by Congress.  

In addition, the interim site, he says, “would expose low-income people of color, communities already heavily polluted by fossil-fuel and nuclear industries, to yet another, major assault to their health, safety, security and environment. And it would launch tens of thousands or more high-risk mobile Chernobyls…down the roads, rails and/or waterways in shipping containers…of questionable structural integrity.”

WHAT ABOUT LACEY?

For plant employees and local officials, the mood was somber on Oyster Creek’s final day of operation in September. Former Lacey Township mayor Gary Quinn (now an Ocean County freeholder) was “sad about the whole situation.”  

Lacey Township is the consummate company town; its seal incorporates a rendering of an atom. Exelon officials say that, over its lifetime, the plant has generated $3.4 billion in wages, taxes and local purchasing. Corporate ownership and employees have donated about $20 million to local charities. 

For decades, the plant has provided as many as 700 jobs. That number has shrunk to 400 and will be reduced by another 100 during the decommissioning. Local government has become reliant on the $2.7 million in annual corporate taxes it collects from the plant. Lacey also receives $11 million annually in state Energy Tax Receipts. That covers about one-third of Lacey’s annual budget.  

Quinn says state officials have assured him the township will continue to benefit from the energy tax for a couple of years, but its share could be reduced drastically, maybe by half, after that. And when it comes time to demolish the buildings, the corporate property tax revenue will decline as well. It’s a troubling picture for Lacey’s financial future. 

With nuclear waste being stored on-site indefinitely, the prospects for residential or commercial projects are virtually non-existent, Quinn says. Township officials have begun discussions with natural gas companies to see if there is interest for a plant there, given that the hookup to the state’s power grid is basically ready to go. Quinn believes it is the best scenario for the township’s financial future. 

A bill coauthored last year by then U.S. representative Tom MacArthur would tap into a $40 billion federal nuclear storage fund to provide economic relief for towns affected by a nuclear-plant closure. The bill breezed through the House but died in the Senate. (In November, MacArthur, a Republican, lost his bid to keep his House seat to Democratic challenger Andy Kim.)

As it stands, there is no plan for the town to get anything other than 1.7 million pounds of radioactive nuclear waste. There it will sit—in steel and concrete canisters in a concrete structure next to a parking lot just off Route 9 and a few miles from the beach—until America comes up with plan.

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