WASHINGTON – Little is left for the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant to prove its life span can be safely extended.
After last week’s approval of an environmental report on the plant, there are two steps to go before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can rule on the plant’s relicensing request, a decision that is expected in May, if not sooner.
That process has scientists and environmental groups worried.
“(NRC) trimmed down the process so much,” that is impossible to know if the plant is safe now and in the future, said Mike Martin of the Sierra Club’s Student Coalition. “They are not even close to that.”
But officials at Baltimore Gas & Electric, which owns the Calvert Cliffs plant, said the next six months are just the culmination of a painstaking process that began almost a decade ago.
“Calvert Cliffs is in better condition today then when it was built,” and safety-related upgrades are continuously being made at the plant, said BG&E spokesman Karl Neddenien.
He said the NRC timetable for a vote on the plant’s license is reasonable. Christopher Grimes, the NRC’s chief of licensing renewal and standardization branch, agreed that while the rules for relicensing have changed, that does not mean there is less inspection.
Last week’s report concluded that Calvert Cliffs does not represent a danger to the environment. The next step is a report on the safety of aging materials and components, which the NRC expects to issue on Nov. 16 at the latest, said David Solorio, the agency’s project manager for Calvert Cliffs renewal licensing.
After that report is issued, the commission’s Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, a 10- member, independent board, will review the project and present its comments to the NRC, which will make a final decision by May.
But the reviews do not include several issues that were taken off the table as part of the 1995 streamlining of the rules, said David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Among the items that have been glossed over in reviews, he said, are vital components such as the reactor vessel, a pot-like structure essential for the reactor functioning. It can suffer from aging and present danger, Lochbaum said.
“It reduces the scope of what can be evaluated in licensing renewal,” and quality might suffer with the current fast track, he said.
A problem with the nuclear vessel at the Yankee Rowe plant in Massachusetts killed plans to ask for a license renewal there under the old rules in 1992, he said. Yankee Rowe has since shut down.
The National Whistleblower Center sued in an effort to slow down the review process. Arguments in that case were heard in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., earlier this month, but no schedule for a decision has been set.
Calvert Cliffs is the first nuclear power plant to go through the new relicensing process. The two reactors at the Lusby plant began operation in 1974 and 1976 and were licensed for 40 years of operation. The new license would extend operations for another 20 years, to 2034 and 2036.