Tornado just missed nuclear plant

Storm passed two miles northeast of Calvert Cliffs, officials estimate

May 01, 2002|By Johnathon E. Briggs | Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

Packing winds of more than 261 miles per hour, the strongest tornado in Maryland's history passed within an estimated two miles of the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Calvert County on Sunday.

Plant officials said yesterday that although the state had never before experienced a twister of such magnitude, the nuclear facility, perched on a slope overlooking the Chesapeake Bay, could have withstood the violent storm.

"The plant is designed to withstand tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, a wide range of events," spokesman Karl Neddenien said of the power plant owned and operated by Constellation Energy Group, parent company of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

Photographs taken Sunday evening, apparently by a plant employee from an area on the grounds that looks toward the bay, have circulated in recent days showing the spinning funnel cloud touching down in the water as it moved east toward Dorchester County.

The category F5 tornado - highest on a scale used by meteorologists - appears to be about two miles northeast of the 28-year-old plant, officials said.

But critics were asking: Are Calvert Cliffs structures rated to withstand an F5 tornado?

"I've seen pictures of a stalk of straw thrown through a telephone pole by a tornado. It's certainly not a ho-hum kind of affair," said Paul Gunter, director of the Reactor Watchdog Project with the Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Washington.

"Clearly the concern is the power system to the plant, whether or not the buildings the emergency generators are housed in are rated to take winds of up to 260 miles per hour or tornado missiles."

Neddenien said the plant's "extremely rugged construction," including walls up to four feet thick of steel-reinforced concrete and redundant backup power systems, prepare the plant for the worst.

A little more than an hour before the storm's arrival, he said, staff members walked the grounds looking for and tying down objects - from trash cans to picnic tables - that could cause damage if picked up by high-velocity winds.

"The tornado really posed no threat to the plant," he said.

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