By the time David Jansen came to work at the new nuclear power plant being built along the eastern bank of the Delaware River, the massive construction project was the biggest thing he had ever seen.
The containment for Salem Unit 1 was halfway done, and “Salem 2 was a big muddy hole in the ground,” Jansen said.
That was in 1970. At any given time, a visitor might have seen as many as 5,000 workers on Artificial Island – construction workers, engineers, electricians and the many people who supported them. That number also included future nuclear plant operators, like Jansen, who eventually would man the controls of the brand-new nuclear reactor.
“I was in awe of the complete size of the operation,” Jansen said.
Construction of the two-reactor Salem Nuclear Generating Station began in 1968; Salem Unit 1 began to generate electricity in 1976 – exactly 40 years ago this month.
Today, Artificial Island is home to the three-reactor facility known as Salem and Hope Creek – part of a nuclear fleet that generates nearly half of the electricity in New Jersey. The plants create 1,700 permanent jobs and another 1,000 contractor jobs during twice-a-year refueling outages – pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy every year.
In Salem 1’s start-up years, nearly all of the union laborers who would operate the plant were recruited from PSE&G’s North Jersey fossil power plants, such as Essex, Hudson, Marion and Mercer. For positions requiring experience with reactors, more experienced workers were recruited from the U.S. Navy’s nuclear program. Ultimately, Salem and Hope Creek also would provide a landing spot for many local workers from a downsizing DuPont chemical plant in Delaware.
Most of Salem’s original employees are retired now, and many of them still live in the communities surrounding the place known to those who worked there simply as “the Island.” Dozens of PSEG Nuclear retirees gather regularly for breakfast to trade stories about the early years of nuclear power in New Jersey.
Those detailed stories include a construction and startup operation that lasted for years, as well as the setbacks that dotted the nuclear plant’s early days – such as faulty equipment or delays that followed the infamous accident at Three Mile Island. They trade tales of the “Island 500” – the daily 4 p.m. race of contractors speeding home from the construction site at the end of their workday.
They love to talk about the time spent in the rising power plant’s nooks and crannies – places that would later be off-limits for safety or security reasons.
“I remember the ability to climb inside the reactor vessel and heating loops before the fuel was loaded,” said Chuck Johnson of West Chester, Pa., who retired in 1997, including 26 years with the Salem plants. “You’ll never get to those places again.”
Of their many memories, the strongest by far surround the fraternity of the crews they worked with – and the sense of teamwork and shared mission that came with working toward a goal as enormous as Salem Nuclear Generating Station.
“The camaraderie here was always great,” said Warren Strubmuller of Cape May Beach, who spent 23 years on Salem projects, retiring in 1995. “The cooperation between engineers, which I was part of, and the operations group was amazing – and is what made our project successful.”
Frank Kaminski of Gibbstown, who retired in 2005 as a senior simulator instructor and spent 28 years on Salem projects, agreed: “You get a different feel, at start-up, for what it is to be part of a team,” he said. “I made lifelong friends here.”
Salem’s family atmosphere extended into the community. As thousands of nuclear plant employees made their homes in Salem County and other areas nearby, they found themselves welcomed as new neighbors – particularly as more local residents began working at the plants, as well.
Over the decades, Salem and Hope Creek fueled economic growth that benefited the entire region – especially their host community of Lower Alloways Creek. The plants and their employees were known for their generous support of local organizations and charities such as Junior Achievement and the March of Dimes.
Salem’s earliest employees were ambassadors to neighboring residents, as well, whether providing tours of the plants or reaching out to speak to local schools and government groups.
“People were comforted by the fact that we were going to live here (in Salem County). That meant a lot to people,” said Victor Lowensten of Clarksboro, who began at Salem as a nuclear control operator and spent 27 years on Salem projects, retiring in 1995.
The future of nuclear is as important to New Jersey as its past.
Salem 1’s original operating license was scheduled to expire in 2016. Following a rigorous application process that required 122,000 man-hours, 30,000 pages of documentation and cost $39 million, Salem was given a 20-year extension, until 2036.
That’s an important achievement – but by no means a guarantee that the economics of the U.S. energy system will continue to let nuclear plants thrive. The nation’s nuclear fleet is finding itself under economic pressure, in particular from relatively inexpensive natural gas, which has driven all electricity prices down.
Forty years after Salem’s energy operations began, many of Salem County’s other large employers have left – DuPont, Hunts, its 150-year-old glassworks – leaving Salem and Hope Creek as the region’s largest employer by far. What once was a “muddy hole in the ground” is now integral to the region’s economy.
“It’s connected to everything else,” Kaminski said.
That connection began 40 years ago with thousands of workers who arrived in Salem County to build a nuclear plant – and also built a sense of common purpose.
“We were all trying to get the place to go and to do it well,” Jansen said. “That was the real story – we all worked hard and did everything we could.”
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