MONEY TO BE SAVED, BUT AT WHAT COST?:
BGEs Calvert Cliffs Gets Nod To Renew Operations
The first license extension for a U.S. nuclear power plant was granted on March 23 by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. (BGE) for the two units at Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant, located near the town of Lusby, in Southern Maryland.
The license extension was unanimously approved by the NRCs five-person panel, extending the license expiration dates to 2034 for Unit 1 and to 2036 for Unit 2. The two 850-megawatt units began operating in the mid-1970s.
In 1995 the NRC changed the power plant license extension regulations, eliminating the previous NRC requirement to assess the health effects of radioactive emissions.
Joseph J. Mangano, a research associate with the Radiation and Public Health Project, reporting in an article in the April 10 issue of The Nation magazine, charged that ...the NRC, utilities and public health departments have never voluntarily performed a single study on cancer or other radiation-inducted conditions, abdicating their mission of shielding the public from harm.
The relicensing of Calvert Cliffs has paved the way for other nuclear license renewals in the future. Presently, six other nuclear power plants are applying for license renewal: Oconee 1, 2 and 3, 30 miles west of Greenville, SC; Hatch 1 and 2 near Haxley, GA; and Arkansas Nuclear One, Unit 1, near Russelville, AK.
Prior to granting the Calvert Cliffs license renewal, three NRC inspections of the plant took place. The NRC staff found no safety concerns as described in the NRCs Generic Environmental Impact Statement for License Renewal of Nuclear Power Plants.
The relicensing appears to make sense from a financial standpoint, as BGE estimated it would cost between $500 million to $1 billion to retrofit Calvert Cliffs, versus spending $6 billion to build a new one from scratch.
New Nuclear Plants Unlikely Building a new plant probably could not happen in any event, because no new plant has been ordered in the U.S. since 1978. It appears that the only way nuclear power is likely to remain an option in the U.S. is if the licenses of existing plants are renewed. The public has made it clear it does not want new ones to be built.
Currently, there are 103 nuclear power plants operating in the U.S. Since 1987, 12 U.S. nuclear plants have ceased operations.
In NRC public hearings prior to granting the license renewal, BGE officials pointed out that operating costs of a nuclear plant are relatively inexpensive when compared with other kinds of electricity-generating methods, and estimated that its customers have saved billions of dollars over the nearly quarter-century during which Calvert Cliffs has operated.
The re-licensure of Calvert Cliffs concerns environmentalists, who point to the fact that before the NRC rules were changed in 1995, other plants seeking license renewal could not qualify for it.
Critics say that when the costs of clean-up and storage of spent nuclear fuel are taken into account, nuclear-generated electricity is actually more expensive than other methods.
They also cite poor past safety performance of Calvert Cliffs as a reason its license should not be renewed. For example, from December 1988 until February 1992, Calvert Cliffs was on the NRCs watch list of problem plants several times, and had to be shut down for a year in the late 1980s in order to correct safety and management problems. BGE has maintained to the NRC that these problems have been solved.
;Aging Infrastructure Another concern is the plants potential structural instability due to normal aging of the materials used in its construction. A plant originally designed and built for a 40-year lifespan, critics say, should not be used for 60 years --a 50% extension of its normal life expectancy. With advancing age, every piece of machinery will need expensive repairs and replacements. Management will have to carefully balance the need to uphold safety standards and the desire to continue to producing relatively inexpensive electricity.
Another concern is that there is a shortage in skilled and qualified workers in the nuclear industry. Since no new nuclear plants are being built--and probably never will be--and existing plants are closing unless they gain NRC license renewal approval, workers are moving into new, less dangerous and more promising careers.
The Calvert Cliffs license renewal means 20 years more of producing nuclear energy--and twenty years more of generating nuclear waste, a product for which there is still no safe long-term storage method.
Federal Governments Failure In the 1950s, when the U.S. government encouraged public utilities to build nuclear plants, the federal government pledged to provide long-term, safe storage for spent fuel, whose radioactive elements have half-lives of up to 24,000 years. To date, the government has failed to do so. Calvert Cliffs continues to store its waste in temporary facilities at the plant, which is on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay.
Because all U.S. nuclear plants lack long-term storage of spent fuel, this factor was not counted against BGE in its license renewal application.
Meanwhile, the DOE is studying and readying a possible long-term storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but the site will not be available until 2010 at the earliest. No other suitable site has been identified. The DOE currently faces myriad lawsuits from states, municipalities, and state agencies because of its failure to provide the promised safe long-term storage.
An additional concern is that Calvert Cliffs is only 40 miles from Washington. According to a 1982 Sandia National Laboratories report, an accident at the plant could cause damage over a 55-mile radius, affecting millions of residents and possibly jeopardizing the operations of the U.S. government.
The big winner in the licensure renewal is Calvert County, where BGE is a major employer and community benefactor.
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This story was published on April 5, 2000.