Our Nuclear Neighbor

Vol. 8, No. 10
March 9-15, 2000
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story by Kent Minichiello
illustrations by Gary Pendleton

You’re in for some surprising conclusions when you tour Chesapeake Country’s nuclear neighbor with a writer who endured the cold sweat of the Cold War scare and an expert on the deadly wastes of atomic power.

My experience with nuclear power had been confined to book learning until science writer Luther Carter and I traveled down Route 4 into Calvert County for a visit to Baltimore Gas and Electric’s Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Plant. Maryland’s only nuclear power plant sits three-quarters way down the long neck of the county on the shores of Chesapeake Bay.

Unlike me, Luther is an expert on the subject. His book, Nuclear Imperatives and Public Trust: Dealing with Radioactive Waste, looks at global problems created by the radioactive by-products of the nuclear power industry, especially storage of the deadly waste left behind when reactor fuel is used up.

Something else is being used up at Calvert Cliffs these days — the plant’s operating license. The trail-blazing drive to renew that license has the eyes of the nation’s nuclear generating industry — and of critics of nuclear power — trained on southern Maryland.

The two reactors at Calvert Cliffs have run nearly 25 years and are licensed to run well into the 21st century — until 2014 and 2016. Still, BG&E says early renewal will allow it to better plan for the upcoming deregulation of electric power. So in 1998, the utility asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to extend its Calvert Cliffs operating license another 20 years.

Calvert Cliffs is the first of the nation’s 103 nuclear plants to seek the 20-year renewal, so what happens in Maryland sets the stage for the industry’s future. If Calvert Cliffs gets its extension swiftly, other plants probably can count on another 20 years to compete in the deregulated electric power market. But if Calvert Cliffs is refused, the nuclear power industry should plan for its demise.

In November, the Commission’s fast-track schedule for renewing the license was derailed when a federal appeals court ruled that the government had unfairly ignored opponents. The ruling complicates the drive by BG&E’s parent company, Constellation Energy Group, to buy additional reactors that are going these days for fire-sale prices. It used to be much different, back before the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979 when nuclear power was hailed as the safe, clean path to powering the nation and perhaps the world.

The Way It Was

Most of the nation’s nuclear plants were ordered in the ’60s and early ’70s, when demand for electricity was exploding.

Back in the late 1960s, most people in Calvert County welcomed plans for the plant. Building and operating it would add 1,500 jobs to the local economy and nearly double the little rural county’s tax base.

Even so, some residents attempted to block construction. They sued, alleging that the Atomic Energy Commission, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s forerunner, failed to fulfill the agency’s National Environmental Policy Act mandate to consider environmental effects.

The U.S. Court of Appeals’ 1971 decision in the Calvert County case was arguably the single most important in the history of the atomic energy program. Judge Skelly Wright ruled that the Commission (and, by implication, all other federal agencies) must consider environmental costs and benefits. That ruling still stands.

Then came the Arab oil embargo of 1973, which had an even bigger effect on the burgeoning nuclear industry. Scarce oil changed the way America thought about energy. Energy conservation and efficiency were discussed seriously for the first time. Plans for new, large power plants — many of which would have been nuclear — were put on hold or reevaluated. This specter of public opposition changed the economics of power generation, increasing the chance of financial loss in this capital-intensive industry.

With the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979, public scrutiny increased. From then on, every planned nuclear plant would meet a court challenge. Citizen lawsuits delayed construction, which increased holding costs to the point that plans for many plants were abandoned. Even plants under construction fell victim to the combination of litigation delays, rising interest rates and lower demand for electricity.

In the U.S. as the millennium turns, no reactors are on order and none are being built.

Our Nuclear Neighborhood

Route 2-4 does not give the sense of a region oriented to the Bay. Relatively few roads turn off eastward, for Calvert County’s Bay shore is generally bordered by high cliffs without large inlets. Along these cliffs, tight against the Bay just north of Calvert Cliffs State Park and inside a buffer of 2,500 acres of mostly protected wilderness sits the plant.

We entered on a wooded drive and parked at the visitor’s center. From here, you hardly expect to overlook a nuclear power station.

A circling osprey’s high-pitched call drew our attention to the cliffs along the Bay. The beach below the cliffs is a closed reserve for the endangered puritan tiger beetle.

To our left, swallows coursed over 100 acres of plowed fields, which are leased to a farmer whose uncle was a tenant of the original owner, Goodman Goldstein, father of the late Maryland comptroller Louis Goldstein.

In 1916, Goodman bought the Bay Farm property at Calvert Cliffs. Then mostly woodland, the few fields were tenant farmed or leased until BG&E bought the whole property in 1967. The availability of Chesapeake Bay water for cooling made the shore a likely place for a power plant, and BG&E paid Goldstein twice the appraised value.

Now, from the still-rural overlook, a large interpretive kiosk, visitors look down on the power plant spread out in perhaps a dozen buildings.

Along the overlook’s hand rail is a faded schematic of the plant. As I strained to read the scarcely visible lettering, I had a momentary and startling suspicion that radiation from the reactors had bleached the display. Of course it had not — sunlight was the culprit — but my reaction was unthinking, based on many years of cold-war fears of nuclear attack.

Getting Warmer

A checkpoint admitted us to the plant’s outer perimeter of fences. Our guide for the day, Charles Rayburn, drove us to the dry storage area for expended nuclear fuel. Luther was particularly interested in this, for his concern is not so much that radiation will spread into the environment but that nuclear weapons will be made with plutonium recovered from spent commercial reactor fuel.

Spent fuel is sealed in helium-filled canisters and stored in concrete bunkers resting on a concrete pad inside a 12-foot-high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. Radiation levels outside the bunkers are continuously monitored.

Radiation from the bunkers at the fence line is harmless, Rayburn contended. All the used fuel from the plant’s 25 years of operation is on site, and there is enough storage space remaining on this one pad to last through 2023, well into the term of the next license.

Is on-site storage at Calvert Cliffs problem-free?

Luther thought it was for the foreseeable future. But he cautioned that world-wide, long-term security requires properly engineered deep underground storage overseen by an internationally responsible authority.

Such measures would create the least risk of radiation escaping into the environment and would be the best safeguard against spent fuel being stolen for recovery of its plutonium to make weapons.
America ought to set an example for the rest of the world, he said, by getting its spent fuel into secure, deep storage as soon as a satisfactory facility can be built.

The Inner Sanctum

Within a double line of fences is the plant itself. Our security clearances had been approved. Now we signed in and passed through radiation monitors and into the plant’s yard through remote-controlled steel gates.

We would be monitored again on leaving to make sure that we had not picked up an untoward dose of radiation.

Across the yard loomed the containment structures, much more massive at ground level than when seen from above. It is hard to imagine that anything could escape from them, yet it happened in 1979 at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

The Three Mile Island “accident,” as it is called, occurred when design weaknesses, equipment failures and mistakes in operating procedures combined to release enough water from the reactor to uncover the top of the core. Heat broke down the tops of the fuel rods and partially melted down the core. The disintegrating fuel rods released radioactive gases into the water around the core. Some of these gases were eventually vented into the open air.

The partial meltdown did not rupture the reactor vessel or the containment structure. Nor, authorities said, did Three Mile Island’s release of radiation endanger people living nearest the plant.

Even so, the partial core meltdown was a close call: The top of the core was uncovered for a matter of hours. Some experts think that a complete meltdown would have occurred in one more hour had coolant not been restored to the reactor. Then the core might have melted its way through the reactor vessel and out the concrete bottom of the containment structure, contaminating ground water under the plant with radiation.

At Calvert Cliffs, Bay water cools the reactor. At the Bay water intake, cool water is drawn from the bottom of the Bay to condense steam. Then the water is returned to the top of Bay.

The water’s temperature is raised only until it reaches the temperature of the Bay’s surface, which is naturally about 10 degrees warmer than the bottom. This step saved BG&E from building cooling towers and lowered the original investment in Calvert Cliffs to $778 million. The effect on aquatic life is said to be minimal. But reports from annual testing available for viewing at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s public reading room in Washington, D.C., routinely show evidence of radioactive materials in Bay oysters.

The turbine building was cavernous but brightly lit and quite noisy. This surprised me, for the turbine rooms that I had visited in hydroelectric plants throbbed with quiet power. Here stainless steel gleamed and roared, apparently motionlessly.

Against one wall were the doors to the control rooms, the command centers from which operators run the plant. Visitors are barred, but we later visited the simulator. This large room, an exact copy of the plant’s reactor control rooms, provides computer simulations of actual operating conditions, including emergencies caused by equipment failures.

Lessons of Three Mile Island

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the nuclear power industry have made many changes since the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. Emergency equipment and procedures have been improved. Safety systems have been made more secure by installing redundant power and communications lines.

But arguably the biggest change has been improved training for plant operators. Before Three Mile Island, plant operators went off-site for one week’s training every year on a generic simulator. Yet plant design and operating systems were not standardized, so control room hardware and procedures at the generic simulator differed from those at any particular plant. Now every plant has its own simulator, where operators train one week out of five. Operators spend a year and half in classroom and simulator training before they are licensed to operate the plant.

Meltdowns of the Three Mile Island sort are not the only accident a nuclear power plant can suffer. Other nuclear plants have been permanently shut down because of the danger that the reactor vessel or the pipes connected to it might crack. When steel is bombarded by radiation, it has a tendency over time to become brittle and hence to crack under pressure.

Each batch of steel used in the plates, pipes and welds of each reactor differs and so may become brittle at different rates. Calvert Cliffs has a test to determine if its steel is becoming dangerously embrittled. Pieces of steel of the batch from which the reactor vessel was made are placed inside the operating reactor and withdrawn and tested from time to time.

Calvert has another fail-safe safety feature. BG&E bought a reactor built by Westinghouse at the same time that the company was building the Calvert Cliffs reactors. By taking this sister reactor apart and testing its steel and welds, BG&E learned a lot about the strength of the material. On that basis, the utility judged the reactor vessels able to continue safely functioning through the relicense period.

That additional advantage, the utility hopes, makes Calvert Cliffs a good candidate for relicensing.

Meltdown Odds

What is the risk of another accident like Three Mile Island? Neither Luther Carter, my traveling companion, nor BG&E’s Charles Rayburn could give a firm answer because it is hard to evaluate and quantify the risks of industrial accidents. A nuclear industry brochure from the visitor’s center gave the impression that the risk was very small, but some opponents of nuclear power believe that sooner or later a total core meltdown is sure to occur at some U.S. plant.

Not only opponents think that way. In its 1985 report to Congress, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission put the risk of a “severe accident” in the United States at “about 50-50 in the next 20 years.” Applying this probability to the period from now to 2036, when the renewed licenses to operate Calvert Cliffs would expire, the risk is about 70 percent among existing plants. Those are high odds.

If that assessment were correct, it is even money that I, at 60 years of age, will live to see another Three Mile Island accident. Odds are 7 in 10 that my children will.

What ought to be done? Should the public demand an immediate end to nuclear power plant operation? Should nuclear regulators refuse to grant 20-year extensions for the two reactors at Calvert Cliff?

Before saying ‘yes!’ consider the consequences of a nuclear accident and compare them to the harm done by other sources of power generation.

Are Nukes A Lesser Evil?

The April, 1986 nuclear accident in Chernobyl in the then-Soviet Union, is the principal source of radiation-caused deaths attributable to nuclear power. To give the biggest nuclear villain its due, let’s compare mortality from Chernobyl to mortality caused by burning coal.

At Chernobyl, two people were killed in the initial explosion and 29 more died later of acute radiation poisoning. Widespread reports of further deaths and serious, continuing health consequences darken the picture.

Globally, the toll of premature deaths caused by the escape of fission products and other radioactive matter is estimated to be 17,000 over the next 50 years.

But we pay a price for all types of power. In the United States, emissions from coal burning are linked to many deaths, good reason why the Environmental Protection Agency is trying to reduce emissions throughout the East and Midwest.

Chernobyl contaminated some thousand square miles of agricultural land, taking it out of production. But in the Eastern United States, from the Appalachian Mountains to the Atlantic coast, coal-produced emissions are acidifying thousands of square miles of lakes, killing trees, reducing forest productivity and causing view-obscuring haze. These emissions contribute to much of the Chesapeake Bay’s nitrogen load — an unwelcome fertilizer that fosters algal growth, increases the Bay’s turbidity and interferes with its production of fish, oysters, clams and crabs.

In West Virginia, coal is being mined by mountain top removal, which literally cuts away the mountaintop to find the coal and then dumps it into surrounding valleys, displacing people, filling streams, killing wildlife and increasing siltation. The land, the productivity and the people lost through coal-burning power generation are major social and environmental problems at least comparable in severity and extent to problems consequent on nuclear power.

These sorts of comparisons led the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to state in the 1980s that when compared to other natural and man-made societal risks, nuclear plants do not impose significant additional risk to the life and health of individuals or society.

These questions will be asked anew as Calvert Cliffs tries to live long into the new century.

Calvert Cliffs at the Millennium

My own conclusion from comparative analysis is that nuclear power is only one of a number of troublesome industrial technologies whose risks need to be reduced.

In an environmental Utopia, we would reduce our energy needs and increase our technological efficiency until neither coal nor nuclear power would be required. The nation and the world should move toward that goal. Meanwhile, it seems prudent to push the worst of the coal-burning plants out first, for the nuclear industry may be dying on its own.

Deregulation may drive the last nails into the coffin, for consumers no longer will subsidize the investment errors of power producers. Already some public utilities are selling their nuclear plants to specialized operating companies who hope that bargain purchase prices and improved efficiency will make them profitable. New, meltdown-proof reactors have been successfully tested in Europe, but there seems to be little interest in them here.

When all is considered, it seems that nuclear power in America will go quietly out of business at the end of the life of the current stock of plants. So it may be wiser for environmentalists to use their scarce resources to force emissions reductions on coal-burning power generation.

What will become of the Calvert Cliffs site in a possible future environmental Utopia, when a stable population and ultimately efficient technology have solved our energy and pollution problems?

There is a model for the re-use of obsolete industrial sites. The U.S. armed forces have been turning over the open spaces at their World War II armaments plants for public uses as parks, recreation areas and wildlife refuges. Industrial parks are being located where the production facilities once were.

At the end of its licenses, Calvert Cliffs should be purchased from BG&E.

Maryland is rich in examples of private land converted to public use, with the state’s purchase of Deep Creek Lake upon its retirement from electricity production a finely tailored model. Calvert County boasts its own revolving loan fund to preserve open space.

The plant itself could become a museum of nuclear power or be converted to a lower risk industry. The visitor’s center, farm and fields could be a living museum of the tobacco culture. The cliffs and beach could continue to protect the puritan tiger beetle. The woodlands might remain a publicly accessible natural area, open to birdwatchers, hikers and hunters to enjoy the out-of-doors.

And who knows? Tourism at the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Museum, Park and Wildlife Refuge might generate as much income and employment for Calvert County as the old nuclear power plant.

Kent Minichiello, of Washington, D.C., is an author, editor (From Blue Ridge to Barrier Islands, An Audubon Naturalist Reader: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), teacher of nature writing and photography collector.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly