Get over nuclear plant fear, U.S. urged

Bush's energy chief visits Calvert Cliffs

May 26, 2001|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

CALVERT CLIFFS - Speaking to an audience of nuclear power workers and television cameras, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said Americans need to get over their mistrust of nuclear power, which he said dates to 1979 and the disastrous accident at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear reactor.

Abraham toured the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in southern Maryland to stump for the White House's energy plan, which calls for the federal government to encourage the construction of new nuclear plants and the rapid relicensing of existing ones.

The administration wants to sharply boost nuclear power production. Today, 103 nuclear plants nationwide produce about 20 percent of the nation's electricity.

The plan instructs the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to consider licensing new nuclear plants and to expedite relicensing of existing ones, many of which are nearing the end of their original 40-year operating permits.

"We need to stop living in the past," Abraham said. "We need to stop thinking of this industry in terms exclusively dictated by Three Mile Island."

That accident near Harrisburg, Pa. - a partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor, which remains unusable because of radiation contamination - reversed the fortunes of the U.S. nuclear power industry. The last time an American utility committed to building a new nuclear power plant was in 1978, the year before the accident, said Steve Kerekes of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade group.

Three Mile Island's bitter aftertaste is not the only obstacle to the administration's plans for nurturing nuclear power. Other potential stumbling blocks include the lack of a facility to safely store nuclear waste, uncertainty about whether new nuclear plants would turn a profit, and opposition from environmentalists, public health advocates and consumer groups.

Streamlining opposed

David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group opposes the administration's plan to streamline permitting and relicensing requirements.

"I would agree that the Three Mile Island accident was like a wake-up call and led to a number of tangible improvements in safety," Lochbaum said.

"To say that that is a foundation for streamlining the process seems like a contradiction in terms. That implies that the existing regulations were developed willy-nilly, and they're not."

Lochbaum said the 26-year-old Calvert Cliffs plant is an example of the benefits of stringent regulation.

The facility, which belongs to Constellation Energy Group and generates power for Baltimore Gas & Electric customers, was placed on the NRC's "watch list" of plants in need of extra oversight in 1988, after a worker died in a non-nuclear accident.

The plant was taken off the watch list in 1992 and is now considered one of the best-run nuclear facilities in the country. Last year it became the first nuclear plant to win relicensing from the NRC, which gave its two reactors permission to continue operating until 2034 and 2036.

Yesterday's tour was the first time the new energy secretary has visited a nuclear plant. Abraham said he was impressed by "the obvious degree to which safeguards and security are a priority every step of the way."

The Bush administration has suggested that utilities could quickly double the country's nuclear power capacity by building a new reactor alongside each existing one.

But Charles H. Cruse, vice president for nuclear energy at the Calvert Cliffs plant, said the company has no plans to expand, even though the original plans called for four reactors.

"It's untested - putting a new reactor in place with all the new regulations," Cruse said, and it's not clear that it would be profitable.

"Somebody's going to have to test the waters, go through the process and see how long it takes and how much it costs," Cruse said, "but our company has not elected to do that at this time."

Some companies are considering expanding existing plants, but none is close to making a decision, Kerekes said.

Need for safe storage

One factor adding to the utilities' cost is the lack of safe storage for spent nuclear fuel, some components of which remain radioactive for more than 20,000 years.

The federal government pledged to build a storage facility, using fees collected from the companies, by 1998. But there is a long-standing controversy over the safety of the site initially selected by the Energy Department at Yucca Mountain, Nev.

The Energy Department is in the midst of a new study of potential sites and is scheduled to make a final pick this year.

In his speech yesterday, Abraham was carefully noncommittal about the controversy, saying only that the administration "understands that the future of nuclear power depends on our ability to solve the issue of nuclear waste storage."

"We will take all measures to ensure a careful, comprehensive, science-based approach," Abraham said.

Lochbaum predicted the Energy Department will be forced to pick Yucca Mountain.

"They collected $14.8 billion [from the industry] and spent seven or eight billion on Yucca Mountain," Lochbaum said. "They don't have enough money left to start over with another site."

Congress has final approval of the site, and the politics of nuclear waste disposal have changed abruptly in recent days as the Democrats are poised to regain control of the Senate.

The ranking Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Harry Reid of Nevada, is an ardent opponent of the Yucca Mountain site. Reid might not be able to prevent construction, but he can delay it, Lochbaum said.

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