Nuclear plant's owner says it's completely safe

Nuclear Power Reconsidered

August 25, 2004|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

Constellation Energy's two-reactor plant at Calvert Cliffs is set on a cliff overlooking the Chesapeake Bay, taking up about a fifth of a 2,100-acre former tobacco plantation that is now mostly a wildlife habitat for eagles, ospreys and deer. Its Unit 1 has been producing power since 1975, Unit 2 since 1977. Some 1,000 workers keep the plant humming.

The plant's two nuclear reactors are housed in a solid concrete containment building in concrete structures that are designed to contain any heat or pressure or radioactive materials "in the unlikely event of a nuclear event," said Barbara Wagner, a spokeswoman for the plant.

"It could withstand a catastrophe, like a plane crash or a 350-mile wind or a tornado or steam explosion out of one of the generators without any release of radioactive material," she said during a recent tour of the plant.

That's a statement some nuclear critics challenge, saying safety testing has not been adequate.

Calvert Cliff's reactors are pressurized water reactors, meaning the water inside the reactor is kept under pressure to keep it from boiling.

A second, separate water loop creates non-radioactive steam that spins a turbine, making electricity.

The plant takes in 2.5 million gallons of water per minute from the Chesapeake Bay in a third loop to cool and condense the steam, allowing it to be reused. The separate system loops ensure that water inside the reactor never comes into contact with the steam system or the cooling system.

George Vanderheyden, vice president of Calvert Cliffs, pointed out the military precision of the plant's operation and the redundancies built into the plant's safety systems, such as the 350 gallons of distilled water in three large tanks, a backup for the reactor coolant system, and another concrete tank with an additional 350 gallons of water, as a back up.

"We are completely self-sufficient should anything go wrong," Vanderheyden said. "We have backups for our backups. As I meet people, they want to know is it safe? We try to get the public involved, and take away the mystery."

That has become more difficult to do since Sept. 11, he acknowledged. Calvert Cliffs no longer offers group tours through its plant because of security concerns.

The nation's nuclear plants have spent $1 billion to improve security since the terrorist attacks, increasing the security force from 5,000 to 8,000 guards, said Michael J. Wallace, president of Constellation Generating Group.

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