Calvert Cliffs to put rules to test Aging nuclear plant seeks license renewal amid NRC revisions

August 26, 1998|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

The owner of Calvert Cliffs, Maryland's aging nuclear power plant, moved forward last spring where others have hesitated, ,, becoming the first in the country to apply for renewal of its 40-year license.

Not long ago, that would have meant microscope-intense scrutiny and daunting hurdles -- a complete physical to measure the health of the Lusby plant.

But over the past few years, anticipating a wave of applications from the nation's aging nuclear plants, the Nuclear Regulatory -- Commission has substantially rewritten the rules to create what it describes as a "more stable and predictable" process.

It is no longer necessary for Calvert Cliffs, or any other plant seeking renewal, to present hard evidence that its facilities are in good working order. Instead, the NRC is requiring management plans that describe how the plants will detect problems and maintain safe equipment.

In making that change, say critics, the NRC has cut loose a key safety net that many credit with catching unexpected and dangerous flaws at a showcase Massachusetts plant seven years ago.

"If you don't look for problems, you won't see any," said David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer and former plant inspector now with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.

"It's a predictable outcome, but not necessarily a safe outcome," he said.

Jim Riccio, an attorney for the consumer group Public Citizen, said that under the original standards, many aging plants would not pass if forced to undergo new, comprehensive reviews.

"The reality is that taking a good hard look puts at risk a plant's current license, not the one in the future," he said. "These plants are aging much faster than the NRC expected."

By 2015, about 40 percent of the nation's 118 nuclear plants are expected to either file to extend their operating license or cease operating.

NRC's view

The new rules, however, will have little measurable effect on safety, the NRC argues.

"The nature of the information to be disclosed has changed from one that looks at particular data to one that looks at the process," said Christopher Grimes, the NRC's director of the license-renewal project. "Practically, there isn't a big difference."

He and officials in the nuclear industry say the old way was a grossly inefficient and costly exercise, producing information largely available to the NRC already.

Disagreement on that point could shape the debate as Calvert Cliffs' application enters the spotlight. The case is being watched around the country, and every issue is likely to be

challenged as the nuclear industry and its opponents fight for precedents that will affect future plant licenses.

When Calvert Cliffs, which is owned and operated by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., applied in April for a 20-year renewal of its license, only one other plant in the nation had ever made serious moves toward application. It quickly turned into an embarrassing debacle for the NRC.

The 30-year-old Yankee Atomic Electric Co.'s nuclear plant in Rowe, Mass., was considered among the nation's safest plants in 1990 and was widely expected to win renewal with no major snags.

But a review of tests on the plant's reactor pressure vessel quickly revealed trouble. In nuclear plants, those steel vessels can become brittle from years of radiation bombardment. In the event of a nuclear accident, a brittle vessel might rupture, exposing the highly radioactive reactor core.

Despite the test results, plant officials insisted that Yankee was safe. The NRC rejected the recommendation of its chief metallurgist, who believed the plant should be shut down. After some pondering, the agency decided to let it continue operating while the uncertainties were weighed.

But detailed test results were part of the public record and were reviewed by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution. Concerned, they went to the media and Congress, and pressure on the NRC intensified.

"The question wouldn't have come up if it hadn't been for license renewal," said Lochbaum of the scientists' group.

Yankee closed the plant in 1992, a step ahead of the NRC, which had decided to shut it down. Closing the plant was preferable to spending $23 million on tests and inspections to meet the requirements, Yankee Rowe officials said.

Under the new rules, will the same test records for Calvert Cliffs be available for public review?

"Probably not," said the NRC's Grimes. "We don't normally get that information."

Whether the problems at Yankee Rowe would surface under today's requirements "is speculative," he said. "The critics probably say the renewal played some kind of role, but from our perspective, we think our normal processes would have found and addressed those issues anyhow," Grimes said. "We think eventually we would have caught it."

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