BGE Nuclear Plant License Renewal Sparks Debate

by Volker Kluepfel
Forty years: What doesn’t seem very old for a human being is almost a biblical age for a nuclear power plant. Nevertheless, Baltimore Gas & Electric (BGE) is seeking to renew its original 40-year operating license for Unit 1 at its Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant. Unit 1’s current operating license expires in 2014 (Unit 2’s expires in 2016). This renewal date may seem far in the future, but the complicated relicensing process can take years.
     Christian Poindexter, BGE chairman and CEO, says, an additional 20-year license period for the plant would reap “enormous benefits” for customers. Opponents of the license renewal say the plant is a threat to human health and the environment. If they had their way, the plant would be shut down immediately.
     Over the next several months the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) will be reviewing Baltimore Gas and Electric’s (BGE) application for relicensing.
     Relicensing is necessary, because the Atomic Energy Act permits a nuclear power plant only 40 years of operation. After that the plant must be shut down unless its operator has applied for a renewal.
     The relicensing process is very complex and includes an NRC review of issues such as environmental impact and safety. Public participation in the process is required before a final NRC decision is made.
     BGE’s relicensing effort seems financially reasonable: it would cost an estimated $6 billion to build a new nuclear plant, but will cost only $500 million to $1 billion to retrofit the existing one.
     If the effort succeeds, Calvert Cliffs will be the first utility in the country to achieve this license renewal.
     The first relicensing effort, conducted in behalf of a plant in Massachusetts in the early 1990s, led to the immediate shutdown of the plant for safety reasons. After that, the only other relicensing applicant withdrew its application.
     The whole nuclear industry therefore awaits the results of the Calvert Cliffs’ relicensing application. Its success could be the starting signal for other plants to apply. In fact, several other utilities have already announced similar plans.
     The nuclear power industry has thrown its weight behind relicensing. The board of directors of Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the industry’s trade organization, passed a resolution urging the industry to encourage and aid renewal efforts.
     According to information from the Sierra Club, a nonprofit environmental conservation organization, the NRC has adopted new regulations that make it easier for utilities to operate nuclear reactors beyond their original 40-year license. “It is virtually guaranteed that they will get a new license,” predicted Glen Besa, a Sierra Club spokesman.
     On July 9, members of the Sierra Club and other interested citizens had their an opportunity to state their opinions publicly at a meeting held by the NRC in Calvert County. This was the initial meeting to begin an essential part of the re-licensing process. Public opinion has to be heard and concerns must be addressed in NRC’s final Environmental Impact Statement. There are still other meetings to come.
     The two 850-megawatt units at Calvert Cliffs generate enough electricity to serve more than 400,000 residential customers. In 1997, the plant produced 13.1 billion kilowatt hours of electricity--the most in its history.
     While awaiting the license renewal decision, BGE has announced plans to spend $300 million during the next four to five years to replace all four steam generators at the plant’s two pressurized water reactors. BGE calculates that the replacement costs will pay for themselves before the initial 40-year operating license period is over.
     BGE officials claim that the relatively inexpensive-to-operate Calvert Cliffs plant has saved billions of dollars for its customers. The plant provides about half the electricity sold by BGE.
     In fact, a NEI statistic shows that only coal can compete with nuclear energy in electricity production costs. On the other hand, costs like clean-up and storage of used nuclear fuel must also be taken into account. According to the Sierra Club, when these costs are added in, nuclear power becomes the most expensive means of generating electricity. Critics of nuclear power generation ask who will be paying the costs of a nuclear plant’s overhead expenses: the shareholders or the ratepayers?
     Another serious concern is safety. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), as part of its evaluation, will conduct three safety assessments:

  1. Public Health and Safety--ensuring that barriers to the release of radioactive materials are well maintained.
  2. Margin of Safety--how often a plant’s safety features are activated and how reliable they are.
  3. Overall Plant Performance--identifying declining trends in plant performance, before problems become deeply rooted.
     The NRC is seeking to integrate these three steps into one annual review of each nuclear plant’s performance--based on the same three kinds of information currently used.
     Because of the complex, technical data, however, it is virtually impossible for the general public to determine if a nuclear plant is operating safely or not.
     The nuclear plants named in the NRC’s current biannual “watchlist” have a better safety performance record than the average nuclear plant in 1986, according to NEI data. This means that the average nuclear plant only 12 years ago would not meet present safety standards.
     A recent study of the Union of Concerned Scientists (USC) questions the safe operation of the nation’s 104 power plants, citing careless inspectors and frequent worker errors. Their most recent report is based on the monitoring of ten plants from November 1996 to January 1998. One of the surveyed utilities is BGE’s Calvert Cliffs power plant.
     The most serious USC finding: internal safety inspectors missed more than 200 problems that occurred at the plants last year. The USC recommends that internal auditors and workers receive additional safety training, and that the NRC improve its enforcement of federal safety regulations. In addition, the USC said, Congress should review the NRC’s effectiveness in ensuring that the public is adequately protected.
     There are other problems relating to the Calvert Cliffs plant, according to its critics. Among them: evacuation protocols, age-related degradation, environment, and cancer rate.
     Evacuation protocols: The evacuation plan for the region around the plant dates back to the 1970s. Conditions have changed since then.
     Age-related degradation: As a result of aging and the constant bombardment of radiation, the power plant may be experiencing steam generator tube degradation and reactor pressure vessel hardening.
     Environment: The plant sits directly on the Chesapeake Bay, the world’s most productive estuary. One significant accident could contaminate the Bay and surrounding landscape for thousands of years.
     Cancer rate: Jay M. Gould, in his book, The Enemy Within,writes, “the two counties closest and downwind of the Calvert Cliffs reactor have registered a significant increase in combined age-adjusted breast cancer mortality rates since 1950-54. Its current rate of 26.8 deaths per 100,000 is significantly higher than the U.S. rate of 24.6 deaths.” This does not necessarily mean that the reactor caused this development. But Gould demonstrates, by using similar examples from all over the world, that this conclusion appears reasonable.
     In sum, critics of nuclear power consider energy efficiency and renewable energy sources to be safer and far less expensive in the long run.
     The focus on license renewal also leads to reconsideration of a long-time related nuclear dilemma: What is to be done with the used fuel? The NEI recently launched a major media campaign to promote nuclear energy as the “emission-free” solution to global warming. The campaign lists nine “compass points” to set the direction for nuclear energy in the 21st century. Among them are “excellence in safety” and “effective low-level waste disposal.” But no matter how safety-conscious plant operators are, dangerous radiation necessarily goes along with the generation of nuclear energy.
     Spent nuclear fuel remains highly radioactive and is potentially very harmful. Nuclear fuel is called “spent” when it is no longer efficient in splitting its atoms and producing heat to make electricity. About one-third of a nuclear power plant’s total fuel load is removed from a reactor every 12 to 18 months and replaced with fresh fuel.
     Because many of the radioactive elements in spent fuel have long half-lives (up to 24,000 years), it must be stored safely. This is where one of the most serious obstacles to safe nuclear power lies. The federal government, despite repeated promises and even a court order to do so, has yet to provide safe long-term storage for nuclear waste from power plants.
     The Department of Energy (DOE) ignored its January 31 deadline to begin moving used fuel from the nation’s nuclear power plants to safe long-term storage. By turning its back on electric utilities and their customers, DOE leaves taxpayers liable for an estimated $40 to $80 billion in damages and additional storage costs, the NEI charges. DOE had been aware of this deadline for 16 years.
     BGE currently stores nuclear waste on-site at Calvert Cliffs, a fact strongly criticized by the plant’s opponents, especially because the potential dangers in piling up spent nuclear fuel will not be considered in the re-licensing process. That’s because, for the NRC, such a storage problem is “generic” to all nuclear plants.
     Fifty states, state agencies and municipalities as well as dozens of utility companies (among them BGE) have filed lawsuits against DOE for its failure to provide the promised storage facility.
     The DOE argues that it is studying and readying a possible storage place at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but says the facility will not be available to accept nuclear waste until 2010 at the earliest. The U.S. Court of Appeals has rejected DOE’s argument that it could not meet the deadline due to “unavoidable delays” in building the permanent repository at Yucca Mountain, but no other suitable site has been identified. Even if it were, many years of tests would still be needed before it could be utilized.
     Despite these concerns and problems, many Calvert County residents support Calvert Cliffs: BGE is the largest taxpayer and employer in the county and is therefore of vital economic importance to the residents. Five hundred people work at Calvert Cliffs.
     “We went overnight from one of the poorest counties in the state to one of the richest when Calvert Cliffs located here,” said County Commissioner Mary M. Krug at the NRC meeting. According to other residents’ testimony, BGE is a company that is concerned about the people of Calvert County. It has invested money, they point out, in environmental protection and civic projects, and supports community activities.
     While it would seem that there is plenty of time for both sides to debate the situation, the NRC has set up deadlines for receiving initial public responses to BGE’s application for relicensing Unit 1 at Calvert Cliffs. Written comments should be mailed by August 7, 1998 to Chief, Rules and Directive Branch, Division of Administrative Services, Mail stop T-6-D-59, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington D.C. 20555-0001, or e-mail
Volker Kluepfel, a political science and journalism graduate of Otto Friedrich University in Bamberg, Germany, is a summer intern with this newspaper.

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This story was published on July 29, 1998.