WASHINGTON – While Congress and the White House battle over where to put used radioactive fuel rods from the nation’s nuclear power plants, Maryland’s only nuclear plant is preparing to increase on-site storage capacity up to 150 percent.
Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant has already filled more than half the existing concrete storage bunkers at its Lusby site and only has space for another five to six years of used fuel rods. And Thursday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave Calvert Cliffs permission to continue operating until 2036.
Plant officials, meanwhile, have been told it could be another 15 years before a national storage facility for high-level nuclear waste is available.
Baltimore Gas and Electric, which owns the Calvert Cliffs plant, is moving ahead with plans to construct additional storage bunkers on site. BGE has a permit to build 72 more compartments, or three more buildings, said spokesman Karl Neddenien, but it has not decided how many to build or when it will start construction.
Local officials are not happy about the ongoing storage, but said they trust BGE to keep the fuel rods safe from anything that could harm the public.
Congress on Wednesday approved a bill to create a national nuclear waste storage site in a mountain about 90 miles from Las Vegas. It would store waste from nuclear weapons facilities as well as power plants around the country.
But President Clinton is expected to veto the measure, and opponents of nuclear power say the government and the nuclear industry should have worked out the storage issue before the plants began operating.
In the meantime, nuclear power plants are being forced to store their spent fuel assemblies on site.
Each year, the two nuclear reactors at Calvert Cliffs use up three to four “fuel assemblies,” or bundled sets of 172 fuel rods that are each 12 feet long, Neddenien said.
After being removed from the reactor, each used fuel assembly is welded into a stainless steel canister and sealed inside a storage shelter about the size of a one-car garage. The shelter’s 3-foot-thick walls are built to withstand tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes and artillery shells, Neddenien said.
BGE spent $24 million for the two existing storage buildings, the access road, a transport truck and security measures, Neddenien said. Each building can hold 24 spent fuel assemblies.
Calvert County Administrator James Allman said he understands why people in Nevada might not want the facility in their back yards, but Calvert Cliffs “was never designed to hold all these spent fuel rods.”
Though the plant has done an “admirable job with safety and security” — surrounding the above-ground storage bunkers with two fences and lots of surveillance equipment, for example — “we certainly don’t think (the spent fuel) should reside in Calvert County for the next 10,000 years,” he said.
Local Sierra Club member Dwight Johnsen said he, too, understands why Nevada would not want to “host all this stuff.” But “there’s nowhere else to put it. No one wants it.
“We don’t like it (stored in Calvert County), but what are we going to do?” asked Johnsen, who lives in neighboring St. Mary’s County. “The nuclear industry should have looked at this in the beginning.”