WASHINGTON – A three-judge federal appeals court panel grilled opponents of the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant relicensing Thursday, apparently skeptical of arguments that government deadlines in the review process were too tight.
The National Whistleblower Center argued that unfair deadlines set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission kept it from filing as a participant in the case, effectively keeping its voice from being heard.
But the judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit did not seem sympathetic.
“They didn’t decide to kick you out, they decided to set a deadline. … You kicked yourself out, didn’t you?” by missing the deadline, asked Judge David B. Sentelle.
Stephen M. Kohn, attorney for the National Whistleblower Center, said his group did ask for an extension and offered a legally recognized “good cause” for doing so. He said the complexity of the case required additional time and that the center’s experts worried their professional reputations could be harmed if they rushed their statements.
Kohn also told the court that additional documents on the relicensing were being submitted by the plant’s owner, Baltimore Gas and Electric, until days before the deadline for the center to file its reasons for opposing the relicensing.
Chief Judge Harry T. Edwards chided Kohn for not explicitly stating that BGE was continually filing documents when the center first asked for an extension of time in August 1998. “If it was that simple, all you needed was two sentences,” Edwards said.
Calvert Cliffs is the first nuclear power plant in the country to seek relicensing under new streamlined NRC regulations. BGE is seeking to extend operation of the two reactors at the Lusby plant to 2034 and 2036, or 20 years beyond the end of their current licenses.
Kohn said after the hearing that he believes this case will determine whether any outsider is allowed to raise safety issues in a nuclear plant relicensing.
NRC Solicitor John F. Cordes Jr. said after the hearing that he was “pleased” at the panel’s apparent acceptance of the commission’s arguments.
But he was also questioned by the court on the timing of the NRC’s July 8, 1998, announcement inviting public participation in the process.
“Truth be told, in the dead of summer … that’s a fairly tight deadline” for an outside group to gather experts and prepare the required documents by Sept. 11, the date set by the NRC for the National Whistleblower Center to comply, Edwards said.
This was the second time the Calvert Cliffs case has been before the appellate court. The court ruled in favor of the group in November, instructing the NRC to let the National Whistleblower Center “participate meaningfully in the license renewal process.”
But that decision was suddenly vacated by the court 11 days later and a rehearing scheduled for January. A snowstorm postponed the hearing until Thursday, one day before the NRC is scheduled to discuss its staff’s recommendation that Calvert Cliffs be relicensed.
The commission is expected to make a final decision on the matter later this month. Cordes assured the appeals court in a Feb. 14 letter that if the NRC decides to renew the license, that action “would not render this lawsuit, or any other adjudicatory proceedings that result from it, moot.”
A BGE official said he does not expect the court to issue a decision in the case for about another month.
Kohn said that if the D.C. appeals court rules against his group, it could simply try to fight the issue again in another federal judicial circuit, by attempting to intervene in future relicensings in other parts of the country.