Maryland's only commercial nuclear power plant is expecte to crank up to full power for the first time in two years next month, following major changes in its operation and management to reverse a late-1980s slide in safe performance.
Depending on the outcome of a federal inspection completed Friday at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant, the Unit 2 reactor -- under extensive repair since May 1989 -- could gain approval to join its 825-megawatt twin on line by early March.
"They had a lot to do, and they've come a long way," said Curtis Cowgill, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's section chief of reactor projects for Calvert Cliffs. "But the utility must demonstrate it has done what it promised and can safely run two reactors."
Those promised changes involve more than nuts and bolts. They were ordered by the NRC to correct a casual attitude toward procedures and safety vigilance that the regulatory agency identified as a factor in the nation's worst nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in 1979.
And for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., the restart represents both an opportunity and a challenge, as it reaps the benefits of full production from its two reactors in Southern Maryland while remaining under pressure to prove that the changes are adequate and enduring.
"Calvert Cliffs ran well for years," said Christian Poindexter, vice chairman of BG&E's board. "It was in need of some overhaul, both mechanical and management, and we've made those changes with deliberate care. With the long term in mind, we'll continue taking care."
But critics are not reassured, pointing to the many postponements in dates for restarting Unit 2 -- at least a dozen since leaks were discovered in its pressurizer vessel 21 months ago -- as evidence of continuing leadership problems and increasing breakdowns in aging components.
They argue that a planned six-week maintenance outage for Unit 1 in late March means the two reactors will operate only briefly together, conveniently delaying a prolonged test of BG&E's ability to handle full production at Calvert Cliffs until this summer.
And they look at management changes and see a reshuffling of '' the same old deck, an isolated, arrogant hierarchy that oversaw the performance decline that cost BG&E $640,000 in fines for safety violations since April 1988 and landed it on the NRC's "watch list" of problem nuclear plants in December 1988.
Among the potentially dangerous shortcomings noted by the NRC after a 1989 inspection were "a management philosophy which appeared to emphasize production over safety, weak procedural adherence [and] inadequate procedures." Serious communications problems were also criticized.
"If they're the same plant they were a year ago, they're not ready," said Scott McNeil, a former NRC inspector who was the project manager for Calvert Cliffs from July 1986 to January 1990. "They were just struggling along."
John Glynn, the state people's counsel -- responsible for challenging BG&E's bid to pass on to its customers the shutdown's cost -- said he believes management "suffers from an excess of self-confidence" and "still doesn't appreciate the situation they're in. This company wants to forget the negative stuff. They want the public to forget it, too."
It's clear from NRC reports and company statements over the past three years that BG&E was slow to recognize the performance decline and quick to claim a turnaround, even though it has been on the watch list nearly as long as a handful of chronically bad nuclear facilities.
The plant was placed on the list again Jan. 24 for at least another six months.
"We expected it. What will really get us off the list is some event-free operation of both units for a period of time," said George Creel, BG&E's vice president for nuclear energy. A veteran of the company's fossil fuel operations, he is a key example of the management restructuring that looked to the company's own pool of talent rather than to outside experts.
"That doesn't mean I'm agreeing we belong on the list. We were never unsafe, we were never a threat to the public, and the NRC never shut us down," he added. "Clearly they felt it was necessary to get BG&E's attention, and they did. But we were getting the message before that."
The most shocking "message" signaling an end to a decade of reliable, non-controversial and very profitable operation came Sept. 15, 1988, when a maintenance worker suffocated and drowned while trying to rescue a colleague from a nitrogen-topped water tank at the plant. Neither worker wore a respirator, a violation of strict safety procedures.
But the disturbing litany of problems didn't begin with that incident or end there, and the NRC levied a total of $325,000 in major fines for serious violations in the 18 months beginning that September.