By Jeannine anderson
WASHINGTON – Maryland and more than 30 other states announced Thursday they will sue the Department of Energy over its December announcement that it cannot meet a January 1998 deadline to start disposing of high-level radioactive waste from nuclear power plants.
The suit – joined by Virginia and Pennsylvania, which are both heavily dependent on nuclear power – is expected to be filed Friday with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
The Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. and more than 30 other electric companies also are suing DOE in an attempt to force the federal agency to meet the 1998 deadline set by Congress.
If DOE fails to meet that deadline, BG&E may have to build more high-security storage for spent fuel rods at its nuclear power plant in Calvert County, said Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.
This could mean higher electric bills for BG&E customers.
The Calvert Cliffs plant has room for a few more years’ worth of the radioactive waste, Curran said. But Maryland wants the Energy Department to live up to the agreement it made in the 1980s to get rid of the waste.
“We want a plan,” Curran said. He added that the Calvert Cliffs plant is located on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay.
“Is this really the best place to leave this stuff?” Curran asked.
Congress set the 1998 deadline when it passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act more than a decade ago. DOE wants to bury the waste in deep tunnels at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
But the project is so controversial that DOE now does not expect to have the Nevada site ready until at least the year 2010 – if ever.
DOE officials declined to comment on the lawsuit Thursday. But the agency has argued that it is not required to take the high-level waste by 1998 if it does not have a disposal site ready when that date arrives.
Susanna Bartoldus, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, said the problems illustrate why the country needs to start putting resources into alternative sources of energy that are “safer and cleaner and don’t have these huge problems of [waste] storage and disposal.”
In 1982, Congress authorized the Energy Department to collect a fee for every kilowatt-hour of nuclear power sold by utilities. In return, DOE is supposed to take possession of the companies’ high-level radioactive waste starting by Jan. 31, 1998.
BG&E’s electric customers pay more than $1 million a month into the Energy Department’s nuclear waste disposal pot when Calvert Cliffs is running at full power, said BG&E spokesman Karl Neddenien. So far, BG&E customers have contributed more than $180 million to the fund, he said.
“We feel it’s appropriate for our customers to get their money’s worth,” Neddenien said. DOE has had “plenty of time and plenty of money. We’re looking forward to some action,” he added.
BG&E, which relies on Calvert Cliffs for 40 percent of its electricity, anticipated in the 1980s that the Energy Department probably would not be ready to take the high-level waste by 1998. So the utility spent $24 million on extra storage space, which it built about a quarter of a mile inland from the nuclear plant.
Spent fuel is stored in huge stainless steel containers there, protected by steel-reinforced concrete structures designed to withstand hurricanes, tornadoes and even eight-inch armor- piercing shells.
“This is the most dangerous stuff on earth,” said Anna Aurilio, staff scientist with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “We don’t see what the hurry is to move it.”
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has said the waste can remain safely at the power plants for 100 years, Aurilio said. “Let’s not compound the error of creating the waste with the error of moving it around,” she said.
About 25 percent of all Maryland’s electricity comes from the Calvert Cliffs plant. -30-