BGE's struggle with fly ash in the age of competition


March 29, 1998|By Brian Sullam

TO UNDERSTAND why BGE is vigorously fighting the prospect of having to install a $10 million clay liner in northern Anne Arundel County where it wants to dump millions of tons of fly ash, you might travel to Calvert Cliffs.

There, BGE is spending millions of dollars on an interim storage facility to handle spent fuel from its two nuclear reactors. The tab so far is $23 million and will climb as long as the federal government fails to open a permanent storage site.

Without a place to store its radioactive waste, Calvert Cliffs, which generates about half of BGE's base load, would shut down.

Although a $10 million clay liner is less expensive than the interim storage site for spent nuclear fuel, the utility doesn't want to be saddled with extra cost if it can help it, particularly with electric power deregulation looming in a few years.

In a regulated environment where BGE has a monopoly, consumers usually end up paying for these extra costs. In the coming era of competition, however, the company either must absorb them and remain competitive or try to avoid them.

Avoiding costs preferred

Avoiding costs is clearly the preferred strategy.

Federal regulations on nuclear power are stringent, costly and unyielding. Given the recognized danger of the radioactive isotopes that are the byproducts of nuclear fission, the handling of nuclear waste affords little leeway.

Storage facilities are built to withstand extreme and unlikely catastrophes -- earthquakes, tornadoes and plane crashes.

They are protected by redundant security systems that range from closed-circuit cameras and barbed-wire fences to highly sensitive motion detectors.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission generally gets its way, no matter how burdensome its regulations. If the industry doesn't follow NRC dictates, the regulators threaten to shut the reactors.

Since Calvert Cliffs opened in 1975, BGE says it has spent $188 million handling its spent fuel.

Federal review tougher

When it comes to dealing with fly ash, the byproduct of burning coal, the regulatory environment is not quite as harsh. Moreover, the utility has an easier time getting its way with local governments than with federal regulators.

Why else would BGE spend so much money on a lawsuit appealing a county hearing examiner's order to install a clay liner the third, and last, increment of its Brandon Woods Energy Business Park?

The $10 million spent on a clay liner is not going to generate any return. BGE could make a better return by using the money to purchase generating capacity or buying more land for real estate in- vestment, or even paying down some of its high-cost debt.

The utility also doesn't want to establish a precedent requiring liners wherever fly ash is used as fill material.

This is a critical point: BGE hopes to place 60 percent of its future ash production in sites other than Brandon Woods.

Costly precedent

If Anne Arundel County is successful in forcing BGE to install the liner, some potential users of fly ash as fill may shy away from or be unwilling to incur the expense of installing liners at their sites.

The fierce battle between BGE and Solley Road residents is over differing perceptions.

Solley Road residents contend dumping fly ash will contaminate ground water, increase air pollution and harm the health of the residents in the community.

BGE, for its part, can produce hundreds of pages of authoritative documentation showing that disposing of fly ash is environmentally benign. The company contends the neighborhood's concerns are unfounded.

Who is right?

A county hearing officer apparently was convinced that dumping fly ash on the ground could potentially damage the aquifers that run beneath the property.

He ordered BGE to install a thick clay liner before dumping the fly ash.

Ending any further dumping of fly ash is the Solley Road residents' goal. They hope that the expensive clay liner will be enough to encourage BGE to find alternative sites.

BGE wants the Solley Road site because it is close to the Brandon Shores plant and will be available during bad weather or when other sites can't accept fly ash.

Although BGE spends millions to build systems to protect nuclear waste against the remote possibility of a direct plane hit or an earthquake registering 8 on the Richter scale, it is not willing to spend much less to protect ground water from the possibility that toxic materials may leach out of the fly ash into the aquifer.

BGE contends the possibility is extremely remote.

Moreover, the cost of protecting against the unlikely environmental damage is prohibitive.

If Brandon Shores were a nuclear plant, BGE wouldn't have the luxury of making that argument.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 3/29/98

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