The governor outlined a 10-point plan to protect the bay.
Its centerpiece is an agreement, first reported by The Associated Press on Wednesday, under which Chicago-based Exelon Corp. will close Oyster Creek on Dec. 31, 2019 - 10 years earlier than anticipated. In return, New Jersey dropped its insistence that Exelon build one or more costly cooling towers at the plant to replace the current cooling system, which sucks 1.4 billion gallons of water a day from the bay, and returns warmer water to the fragile waterway.
"Barnegat Bay is one of my top environmental priorities," Christie said. "After years of inaction and the bay's declining ecological health, we finally have a comprehensive plan that will prevent further degradation of the bay and begin the restoration of this incredible New Jersey resource. The changes won't happen overnight, but the long-term environmental future of Barnegat Bay is now much stronger."
Exelon president Chris Crane told The Associated Press Thursday the last three New Jersey administrations have wanted it to build cooling towers. But Christie was willing to work out a deal with Exelon that both sides could live with.
The company says the $800 million it would cost to build the towers is more than the plant is worth. But environmentalists say the job could be done for about $200 million.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted Oyster Creek a new 20-year license in 2009.
Bob Martin, New Jersey's environmental commissioner, said the state "had to make sure it got closed" if cooling towers would not be built. The prospect of having to battle Exelon in court for years led to talks on a negotiated shutdown, he said.
"We did push them very hard," Martin said. "What we got was a good deal for the people of New Jersey and it gives clear predictability for both sides."
Oyster Creek, the nation's oldest nuclear power plant at 41 years, generates enough electricity to power 600,000 homes a year and provides 9 percent of New Jersey's electricity. That will have to be replaced in coming years, Martin said. He said a natural gas-fired plant would be the best solution since any new nuclear plant would be 12 to 15 years away.
U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), incoming Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the decision was a worrisome indication that government regulation is hurting the nation's energy supply. Last week, Upton called on Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, New Jersey's former environmental protection commissioner, to take more time to study new proposed rules on cooling water intake structures at power plants.
"Oyster Creek is a foreboding sign of what awaits the nuclear power industry if federal and state regulators continue to promulgate rules and regulations with no cost-benefit analysis," he said. "We cannot allow bureaucrats to regulate the nuclear energy sector out of business."
Another key component of the bay protection plan is a measure to limit the amount of nitrogen making its way into waterways as runoff from lawns and agricultural uses.
Nitrogen causes algae blooms that deprive the water of oxygen and kill marine life. It also sustains colonies of stinging jellyfish, which have invaded the Barnegat Bay and local waterways.
The governor also said the state will fund programs designed to reduce the amount of untreated stormwater making its way into waterways. Grants totaling $10 million, plus $100 million over the next decade for no-interest or low-interest loans would help pay for stormwater sewer repairs, salt dome coverings, street sweeping and leaf collection equipment and other efforts.
Christie also said he will consider enacting no-go zones for personal watercraft, and would consider establishing a total daily limit of nutrients like nitrogen that can be allowed to enter the bay.
The environmental community was split over the bay protection plan. The New Jersey Environmental Federation's David Pringle called the Oyster Creek deal "a win for the long-term health of Barnegat Bay, especially given the federal government and Exelon weren't planning on closing down the plant for 19 years."
Nicole Dallara, outreach coordinator for the New Jersey Sierra Club, called the agreement "a sweetheart deal for Exelon."
"When Governor Christie ran he promised that he would protect Barnegat Bay and deal with the cooling towers issue at Oyster Creek, he has done neither," she said. "He has taken the side of the polluter over the bay."