ROCKVILLE – Staffers formally recommended to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Friday that the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant be relicensed, making it the first plant in the nation to achieve that status.
At a meeting hailed as “historic” by Chairman Richard A. Meserve, commissioners were told the Lusby plant’s two reactors meet safety, environmental and inspection requirements and should be allowed to operate for 20 years beyond their current licenses, which expire in 2014 and 2016.
Commissioners, who are expected to make a final decision on the plant by the end of the month, asked a number of questions during the meeting, all of which were easily handled by staff members. Commissioners seemed satisfied with the answers they received.
A spokesman for plant owner Baltimore Gas and Electric said the commission’s questions and the staff’s answers “demonstrated how thorough the license review process has been.
“I was impressed by the questions being immediately answered in a very knowledgeable fashion,” said BGE spokesman Karl Neddenien.
The two-year relicensing process followed new, streamlined procedures adopted by the NRC in 1995. Opponents of the new process have said that the scope is too narrow to adequately address safety issues, and that it moves too quickly to allow the public to comment on all of the documents.
Opponents said the changes have locked the public out of the process. They have not given up their fight — a court challenge to the relicensing was heard Thursday — but said they were not surprised by the generally warm reception the relicensing recommendation got at Friday’s NRC meeting.
“I figured it was basically a fait accompli,” said James Riccio, a senior analyst with Public Citizen.
Commissioners did question staff about several issues, including concerns about the safety of buried cables and the possibility that unusual microorganisms could form in the plant’s high-radiation, high-temperature water.
The staff was concerned that Calvert Cliffs could experience an electrical short in a partially buried cable, similar to one that occurred last fall at an Ohio nuclear plant in a cable between a turbine and a circulating water-pump room. The Ohio incident is still under review, but staff members assured the commission that BGE has agreed to evaluate and modify its inspection activities if the Ohio case indicates it is necessary.
The question about microorganisms came from a member of the public who spoke at a meeting in Calvert County, said Thomas Kenyon, environmental project manager.
But he said that microbiologists contacted through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory said the probability that such microorganisms could develop in the reactor is extremely low. Even if the organisms did form, they would probably die once they reached the cold Chesapeake Bay because of the dramatic difference in temperature, the scientists said.
Meserve congratulated staff members on meeting the two-year timetable. “The bad news is that you’ve created expectations,” he said to laughter.
Two other plant relicensings are already under way and more than a dozen others are expected in the coming years, Meserve said.
The commission meeting came one day after NRC lawyers defended the relicensing process before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
The National Whistleblower Center took the agency to court claiming that it was unfairly kept from participating in the relicensing of Calvert Cliffs.
A three-judge panel of the appeals court is expected to rule on the case in about a month, a BGE official said. NRC Solicitor John F. Cordes Jr. said that a court ruling in favor of the National Whistleblower Center could block, at least temporarily, the issuance of the licenses.