Taking a new view of Calvert Cliffs

Some are worried that nuclear plant is vulnerable to attack

November 04, 2001|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

For people in rural Calvert County, the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant has long been an economic rock -- the largest local taxpayer and an important source of jobs.

But since Sept. 11, some residents have begun to view the plant differently: Now they see it as something that places them near the center of a potential terrorist target.

Perched on a slope overlooking the Chesapeake Bay, with its fragile ecosystem, the plant is less than 50 miles from Washington. Nuclear power experts and a local politician fear that it could face attacks by sea and air.

FOR THE RECORD - An article Sunday about the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant incorrectly identified the facility's owner. The plant is owned and operated by the Constellation Energy Group, parent company of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. The Sun regrets the error.

"We've got to be kidding ourselves if we don't think [the plant] is vulnerable," said state Sen. Roy P. Dyson. "Surely the message of Sept. 11 is the terrorists are very aware of the airline system, and I think we have to assume they are very aware of our nuclear system. We have to change that.""[The attacks] were just too close to home. You can't help but be a little more concerned," said Mary Swieringa, 37, of Lusby, a rural village near the plant.

Mary Sue Garren, another Lusby resident, says she has an emergency bag full of canned food and bottled water in her car, and keeps the gas tank full in case she and her family "have to make a run for it." But, Garren says, she has adjusted to life in the shadow of the plant.

"What can you do?" she asked as she waited to pick up her daughter Megan, a sixth-grader at Southern Middle School in Lusby. "I'm more concerned [since Sept. 11], but I'm not picking up and moving."

Jack Smith, the principal of Southern Middle, says some parents are concerned. But, he adds, he hasn't given the plant a "second thought."

"I trust the people who take care of it," he said.

Tightening security

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., which operates Calvert Cliffs, has stopped giving tours since Sept. 11 and has taken other unspecified steps to tighten security at the plant's two reactors, which stand inside a heavily wooded 2,300-acre tract off Route 4 northeast of Lusby.

Private planes are no longer allowed to fly within 11 miles of the plant, and basic information about its operations is no longer available on BGE or Nuclear Regulatory Commission Web sites. Safety advocates are lobbying to make the flight ban permanent -- it is scheduled to end Tuesday -- and also to bar approach by boat.

The Coast Guard patrols the nearby waters.

Calvert Cliffs produces about 40 percent of BGE's power through a pressurized water reactor, which is powered by pellets of uranium oxide, according to plant spokesman Steven W. Unglesbee.

Nuclear safety experts say Calvert Cliffs and other nuclear plants across the nation could be vulnerable to various forms of terrorism.

A direct, high-speed hit by a commercial jet could penetrate a nuclear reactor's protective dome, according to a study by the U.S. Energy Department's Argonne National Laboratory conducted in 1982 to assess the risks of an accidental airliner crash at a power plant. The report was removed from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's public reading room in Bethesda last month.

Nuclear industry officials have said since the Sept. 11 attacks that it would be difficult to steer a jet into a nuclear plant to penetrate the dome, but critics -- among them the National Whistleblower Center and the Union of Concerned Scientists -- are calling on the NRC to take additional steps to protect against attacks and the widespread radiation they might release.

Radioactive material from Calvert Cliffs could be swept up and down the Chesapeake by tidal action, some fear.

"It would be a disaster, both economically and in the fact the Chesapeake is our greatest natural resource," said Dyson, a Democrat who represents Calvert and St. Mary's Counties on the bay's western shore.

Fuel theft a risk

Apart from a direct air or ground assault, nuclear plants could be vulnerable to theft of spent nuclear fuel stored in casks or water-filled pools on site -- and significant quantities of spent nuclear fuel are stored on the Calvert Cliffs site. The fuel could be mixed with conventional explosives to make a bomb that could contaminate a target with radioactive debris.

Spent fuel rods also could catch fire, spreading radioactive smoke if their cooling systems failed or were damaged.

The increased likelihood of these occurrences has changed the world for those charged with ensuring the safety of America's nuclear power facilities. Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials say that before Sept. 11, they never considered assault by a hijacked airliner a credible threat.

"We hadn't expected anyone to use a commercial plane as a weapon," said Victor Dricks, an NRC spokesman.

The secrecy surrounding efforts to boost security at Calvert Cliffs is disturbing to some who live nearby.

"By not saying anything, they're not helping the situation," Dyson said. "They have to reassure a public down here that's very nervous."

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