PSEG opens high-tech energy education center in Salem

SALEM, N.J. - Laying the groundwork for an expansion of the nuclear-power industry, PSEG will open a high-tech energy-education center here today to prepare the public for plans to build a fourth reactor at its generating complex on Delaware Bay.

Public officials and leaders of the New Jersey company will cut the ribbon this morning on the 6,000-square-foot Energy & Environmental Resource Center, a gizmo-laden visitor center aimed at giving the public a primer on electrical power.

"We are trying to demystify all aspects of electricity generation and distribution that we participate in, from building a new nuclear power plant to building offshore wind and solar," Ralph Izzo, PSEG's chairman and chief executive officer, said last week after getting a preview of the facility.

The information center, housed in a refurbished corporate-training facility in Salem, includes a lineup of interactive exhibits that describe the complexities of electrical generation, explore climate change, and allow users to measure their own carbon footprints. The building's power is partly supplied by a 75 kilowatt rooftop solar array and a 2.3-kilowatt wind turbine, whose output can be monitored on one of the center's many touch-screen flat-panel displays.

Despite the emphasis on renewable energy, the underlying purpose of the center is to build support for nuclear power as a part of the company's energy mix. PSEG - Public Service Enterprise Group Inc. - hopes to one day build another unit on its 740-acre Artificial Island site near here, now home to the Salem and Hope Creek Nuclear Generating Stations.

In May, PSEG plans to apply to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for an early site permit, the first step toward licensing a new reactor on the Salem County site, 40 miles south of Center City. The location is already the nation's second-largest commercial reactor facility after the Palo Verde complex near Phoenix.

An early site permit, which requires more than a year to get approved, indicates a location is suitable for reactor construction and is valid for up to 20 years. PSEG's application would not be tied to a particular reactor design, giving the company the flexibility to choose a vendor later before it actually applies for a construction permit.

PSEG would join a growing number of companies that sense new commercial opportunities in nuclear power, whose development stalled after the 1979 Three Mile Island accident. Nuclear proponents are touting its carbon-free advantages in a political climate where greenhouse-gas emitters face penalties.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade group, anticipates at least four new reactors by 2016 and dozens more by 2030. Federal regulators have received preliminary paperwork for 28 new units.

PSEG officials say they will let other companies build the first reactors in states where regulators can guarantee they will recover their investments from ratepayers, not in New Jersey or Pennsylvania, where power generators are on their own.

"We do not aspire to be part of the first wave of new nuclear plants that get built," Izzo said at an investors conference in November. The hope is that the industry will work out any kinks in the design and permitting process to reduce the risk of costly delays.

PSEG, which is the parent of New Jersey utility Public Service Electric & Gas Co., has long harbored a desire to expand the Salem County facility and take advantage of its proximity to big Northeast markets. A second Hope Creek unit was canceled in 1981 after the industry hit the skids. The opening of the education center represents a renewal of a dream deferred.

"Public education and acceptance is also a critical part of our ability to build a new nuclear plant, so this is really our first big investment in that journey," said William Levis, president of PSEG Power L.L.C., the company's power-generation subsidiary.

PSEG officials say the importance of today's center opening is reinforced by the lineup of dignitaries: NRC Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko is scheduled to attend, as well as U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D., Del.), chairmain of the clean-air and nuclear-safety subcommittee.

The center is a far cry from past public relations efforts, which relied upon mascots like Reddy Kilowatt, the lightning-bolt cartoon figure that was the industry's 20th-century face.

"It was important to get museum-quality things here," Levis said. The computer displays can be updated as information changes, or different displays can be posted depending upon the audience - students might get a different message than members of a local garden club.

The center was designed by UJMN Architects & Designers, of Philadelphia. Levis said it cost "in the low seven figures" to develop.

Levis was inspired to build the center after visiting reactors under construction in Finland, France, and Japan, all of which had sophisticated educational centers. The Salem County reactors once had a visitor center onsite - it was housed in a refurbished ferry called "The Second Sun" - but it shut down in 1986, after reactors were operating.

"We quit educating the public," said Anndria Gaerity, PSEG's power sustainability director, who helped design the new center.

PSEG had space to spare in a 30-year-old 65,000-square-foot building in Salem, where the company houses some support functions. PSEG spent $10 million refurbishing the structure to get a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver rating.

The exhibit devotes most of its space to non-nuclear issues - climate change, the "smart grid," and the relative merits of various power sources. A computerized display shows how output from the rooftop solar panels grows and wanes throughout the day, and disappeared altogether for six days in December when the panels were covered in snow.

"Diversity of fuel supplies is critical," Levis said. "There's a place for nuclear, there's a place for wind, there's a place for coal, there's a place for solar. It's about finding that right spot where it makes sense."

The display on nuclear power is housed within a model of a four-foot thick steel-reinforced reactor containment wall to reinforce the industry's message about security.

The facility's aim is also to build community support for PSEG, whose workforce of 1,500 is already the largest in Salem County. It contains some community meeting and classroom space, and the company has formed a partnership with Salem County Community College to teach courses there.

And while the students are in the building, some might wander into the exhibition and ponder a career in power generation - about a quarter of PSEG's nuclear workforce is scheduled for retirement in the next four years.

"If there is a resurgence of nuclear in this country, where would the workforce come from?" Levis said.


The PSEG Energy and Environmental Resource Center is located at 244 Chestnut Street in Salem, NJ. It is open by appointment only. Call 856-339-EERC.

Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947 or