LUSBY -- Each looks like an army's ultimate pillbox or a grossly overbuilt garage, surrounded by a double row of high fencing at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant. The exterior walls, made of concrete and steel, are 3 feet thick. So are the roofs. The doors weigh 6 tons.
If all goes well, the new, shedlike buildings will sometime later this year become a storage place for used reactor fuel, by far the plant's most intensely radioactive wastes. Everything at the new depot is designed to endure indefinite amounts of radiation and time, because a truly permanent storage place does not yet exist.
The Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., Calvert Cliffs' owner, has so far spent $24 million on this temporary solution to disposing of wastes that remain deadly for thousands of years -- a problem that, sooner or later, will affect almost every utility with nuclear power plants.
BG&E's investment is a sign of the company's desperation: Without the new storage structures, the utility says, it would run out of space for used reactor fuel by mid-1995 and be forced to close the plant.
For $24 million, BG&E has built the two bunkers and purchased the elaborate equipment required to move spent fuel, as it is called, from the reactor building to the storage site. BG&E wants eventually to bill those costs to its customers.
It is unlikely to be the final bill.
Every customer of every utility with nuclear power plants is already paying for a federal repository for spent fuel, though the repository does not yet exist. Since 1983, federal law has required utilities to add a surcharge to their bills to help pay the repository's development costs. BG&E's customers have so far paid $153 million.
BG&E offered the Calvert County commissioners a tour of the depot late last year, about the time construction was complete. The local officials noted, without pleasure, the lack of guarantees that the spent fuel will leave the county.
"Realistically," said Commissioner Mary Krug, "I have to accept the possibility that it will be here forever."
"We don't want that to happen," said Hagner Mister, chairman of the commissioners. "I'd like to see the federal government come up with a suitable location for this stuff to go."
BG&E and its customers are paying the price of broken promises. When the first Calvert Cliffs reactor began generating electricity, in 1975, the federal government was promising to open a permanent disposal site for spent fuel by 1985.
Later, the forecast was changed to 1988. Then, 1998. Then, 2003.
The Department of Energy's current goal is to open a repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., by 2010. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which must license the site, expresses greater caution; it forecasts only that a repository will become available sometime before 2025, at Yucca Mountain or elsewhere.
Room for expansion
With that history in mind, BG&E has included room for expansion at the new storage area; unless the company adds still more bunkers, it will again run out of storage space in about 2003. Calvert Cliffs is licensed to operate until 2017, and that license may be extended.
BG&E has permission to use the storage system for 20 years, but has built structures designed to last considerably longer. "There is no set date at which these things crumble," says Larry Noll, manager of the project. "Given the fact it is essentially reinforced concrete, it can last for an indeterminate amount of time."
What goes into the bunkers is almost certainly destined to outlast them.
Before insertion into a reactor, the long, thin rods that contain Calvert Cliffs' uranium fuel emit relatively small amounts of radioactivity. A person could have a new fuel assembly -- each assembly contains 176 fuel rods -- in his living room, and in a day receive a smaller radiation dose than he would get from a series of hospital X-rays of his chest. He could sit on the assembly for hours, if not days.
Spent fuel is altogether different. When atoms of uranium split during the fission process, more than 100 other radioactive elements are created. The longer the fuel remains in use, the greater the radioactivity. After two years in a reactor, a fuel assembly would be, in every sense, too hot to touch.
Fresh from months or years in a reactor, and exposed to the open air, a fuel assembly would emit a lethal radiation dose in about 10 minutes to a person standing about 10 yards away.
Over time, radiation levels decline. But experts resort to time scales suitable for geology when estimating when spent fuel would no longer pose a hazard. Some of the radioactive material decays into harmlessness in days; other material only after 10,000 years; still other material requires more than 100,000 years.