BGE decides on Calvert Cliffs' future Utility set to ask license extension for nuclear plant

Opposition already voiced

If request OK'd, facility could operate to 2036

March 05, 1998|By Kevin L. McQuaid | Kevin L. McQuaid,SUN STAFF

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. ended years of doubt about its plans for the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant yesterday, when it announced that it will seek to extend its nuclear operating license to 2036.

In filing for the license renewal with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, BGE hopes to extend the life of the plant in Lusby beyond the current expiration in 2014. The utility could become the first in the nation to seek an extension for a nuclear power plant.

"This clears up a lot of uncertainty," said Charles Rayburn, a senior project administrator at Calvert Cliffs.

BGE generates roughly 40 percent of its total electric capacity from Calvert Cliffs, for nearly 400,000 residents and businesses.

Christian H. Poindexter, BGE's chairman and chief executive, said the decision to seek an extension comes after an eight-year evaluation of options "for safety and competitively maximizing the plant's useful life."

BGE contends that Calvert Cliffs has saved consumers more than $5 billion in electric costs since the plant has been operating.

The company intends to spend more than $300 million for new equipment to upgrade the plant so it can pass what is expected to be a strenuous NRC renewal process. Calvert Cliffs was built for $750 million in the late 1960s. "We will focus our review on age-related degradation," said Diane Screnci, an NRC spokeswoman. "We'll need to ensure that the plant meets its design basis and will be maintained throughout the life of the license renewal."

Screnci said the NRC's renewal process will take between three and five years from the time of the filing. BGE, which plans to take nearly that long to install the new equipment, said it hopes to file its application with the NRC by mid-year.

At the same time, the company acknowledged that it is bracing for what will likely be a torrent of opposition from anti-nuclear groups. Under the NRC's licensing process, interested parties can register to become "interveners," to testify during hearings and present evidence regarding the license renewal.

"It's just like a car -- there comes a point where it doesn't make good economic sense to keep it running," said Richard Ochs, director of the Maryland Safe Energy Coalition, a 10-year-old nuclear power watchdog group.

Ochs said keeping Calvert Cliffs open could compound environmental problems in and around the Chesapeake Bay, and heighten the chances for an accident, though he added that the plant has been well-run in recent years.

"But, when you add up all the downsides, it's just a poor idea to extend the license," Ochs said.

BGE knows that it will face stiff opposition.

"We're expecting a strong reaction, though we feel the public generally supports nuclear energy as viable and safe," said Karl R. Neddenien, a BGE spokesman.

BGE's decision to seek a license renewal comes as a handful of utilities nationwide have elected to shut down nuclear plants, either because they have become too expensive to maintain or because of regulatory pressure stemming from poor operations.

Most recently, Commonwealth Edison Co. said in January that it would permanently shut down its Zion Nuclear Station in Illinois after 25 years, after determining that the plant could not compete effectively in a competitive environment.

BGE contends that Calvert Cliffs, unlike Zion or other nuclear plants that are being shuttered, is a well-run plant that is continually maintained and upgraded.

But BGE has had its problems at Calvert Cliffs. Between 1989 and 1991, the plant was shut down for 1,370 days, causing $460 million in losses and one of the longest cases in history before the state's Public Service Commission.

State investigators attributed much of the plant's shutdown to human error, and BGE settled the matter by disavowing $118 million in energy costs.

In August, the NRC fined BGE $176,000 for safely violations that occurred during a scheduled maintenance shutdown.

However, since the two-year shutdown earlier in the decade, analysts and industry experts say, Calvert Cliffs has operated effectively and safely. Last year, for instance, the plant produced more energy than ever before and its safety record remained in the top 10 percent of the industry for the third consecutive year.

BGE won't be the only utility that may seek an extension in the near future. Duke Power Co., a North Carolina-based utility, is expected to decide later this year whether to file for renewal of a nuclear license, the NRC said.

And more will be in the offing. By 2015, nearly 40 percent of all nuclear licenses will have expired, Screnci said.

Pub Date: 3/05/98

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