Salem at 40: Four Decades of Nuclear in New Jersey

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A view of the Salem Unit 1 containment under construction.

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.salem_nuclear

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.

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The Second Sun was a floating information center where visitors could learn more about PSEG’s Salem nuclear plant. The center was retired in 1992.

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.”

View additional historic photos.

RESIZED1Jim Namiotka- Lead Corporate Writer, PSEG

5 thoughts on “Salem at 40: Four Decades of Nuclear in New Jersey

  1. I remember traveling to the plant many times with my grandfather, Joel Reed. He worked on the Second Sun. I remember watching the cooling tower for Hope Creek get built. It’s awesome to see Salem 1 and 2 are still thriving after 40 years!

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  2. When construction of Salem 1 and 2 began in 1968, I was still in grade school. I first heard about nuclear power generation and PSEG’s Salem project when I was in high school. It held my interest and I thought about how the technology would affect the future, never dreaming how it would come to affect me and my future.
    But just a few years later in 1977 I was driving down the access road to the Island for the first time to become one of thousands working on completion and startup of Salem Unit 2 as an employee of United Engineers & Constructors. After 2 years I left Salem and went on to work other projects in the state, but returned to spend 5 years at Hope Creek from 1981 on into startup and have returned to work outages at all 3 units ever since. I’ve accumulated over 30 years working on the Island since 1977, all of it as a contractor.

    Not being a PSEG employee has not stopped me from wanting these plants to survive and continue to operate safely and efficiently and its one reason I have chosen to return to work here time and again when I could have worked other projects around the country which offered the chance to earn more money or better paths to advancement.

    Salem and Hope Creek has always been important to me because I know what they have done for the economy of South Jersey and beyond over the past 40 years. The thousands who were able to hold a good paying job and turn those wages back into the local economy helped so many people and businesses throughout the state directly and indirectly. Back when Hope Creek was under construction I had men working for me who had traveled from hundreds of miles away and expressed to me how lucky they felt to have a job and be able to make a decent wage for their families. The areas that some of them came from were impacted by high unemployment for a variety of reasons. Most didn’t like being away from home but did what they had to for their families to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. As a whole I was impressed with the caliber and dedication that everyone showed in their roles however small that contributed to the completion of these mammoth projects. One group that seemed to de the impossible time and again were the welders of the various trades, but especially the pipefitter welders. Some of the welds they were asked to make in precarious positions and difficult conditions and achieve perfection seemed impossible, but somehow they did it and passed all the required testing. They were the finest bunch of welders it was my pleasure to work with and nothing will ever top their performance. The quality of their work lives on to this day as Salem and Hope Creek continue to produce safe, reliable power for the residents of New Jersey.

    I know how important it is for the units to perform reliably and efficiently, and I felt I could help achieve that result with a positive work attitude, keeping my skills honed and up to date, and by always doing my best work. To me “good enough” is not good enough when it comes to nuclear power the way I see it. In the construction field there is a popular saying “we’re not building a Swiss watch”, and in the case of Salem, Hope Creek, and every other unit across the country they’re right. It’s a nuclear power plant and needs to be built and maintained better than a Swiss watch.

    Since I live only a few miles away as the crow flies I’m also in the ‘shadow’ so to speak of the Island should an emergency arise. My desire is for my community to remain safe and a place where people can enjoy life for years to come. To that end I saw two ways for me to ensure that outcome.
    The first is to work here and ensure that high standards are maintained and adhered to by myself and others so we never face a disaster like those that devastated the countryside around Fukushima or Chernobyl. And the second has been to volunteer my time for the past 26 years to my local emergency response organizations by preparing to assist should an emergency occur.

    Twentieth Century Pyramids is how I have referred collectively to nuclear plants around the country at times. That’s not far from the truth though, for in reality thousands of men and women labored for years to design, build, operate, and maintain them, and they will stand for hundreds of years after we are gone. And I want that monument they will be to our point in time to be one that will be looked on with admiration and respect, not one of disrespect because we were careless or forgot the lasting impact that a catastrophic mistake could have on humanity.

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  3. Worked at Salem almost 40yrs .The late 80’s early 90’s, working with Warren Straubmiller,s Service Water Group is still my favorite time on the Island. Things kinda went downhill after that. Still can,t complain too much. Put both my daughters through college & grad school plus 2 weddings.not bad for dumb pipefitter

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  4. Came to work for pseg as a startup and test engineer during Hope Creek construction and startup in 1982. Retired in 2015. Great place to work and raise a family. Has been my pleasure to have worked with many fantastic and talented people over the years. Still asked to come back and help out on certain projects during refueling outages. Always happy to do so.

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