Nuclear power has new shape

Proposed reactor at Calvert Cliffs would recycle water, draw 98% less from bay

December 25, 2007|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun reporter

A doughnut-shaped building that looks like a sports arena may soon rise beside the Chesapeake Bay - a cooling tower for a huge new nuclear reactor proposed at the Calvert Cliffs power plant in Southern Maryland.

The state-of-the-art cooling system would enable the new reactor to recycle water, thus drawing 98 percent less from the bay than the two existing reactors, which opened in 1975 and 1977.

The low and wide circular structure would look different from the tall, hourglass-shaped cooling towers that have become an iconic symbol of nuclear power - as featured, for example, in the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant where the cartoon character Homer Simpson works.

"We are using a new technology - a hybrid cooling tower - instead of drawing large amounts of water out of the Chesapeake Bay," said George Vanderheyden, a vice president at Constellation Energy and president of a joint venture called UniStar Nuclear Energy LLC that has proposed the $4 billion reactor in partnership with a French company, Electricite de France.

Some environmentalists praise the idea of using less bay water but still question the safety and cost of nuclear power.

If the project wins federal and state approvals, and Constellation decides to proceed, the reactor could be the first started in the United States since the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979.

The "evolutionary power reactor," targeted for opening in 2015, would be among a class of eight generators proposed around the world that would be larger than any operating today. The new Calvert Cliffs reactor would boost the amount of electricity that Maryland gets from nuclear power from 20 percent to 35 percent.

The Calvert Cliffs plant does not have cooling towers today. Instead, its two reactors draw 2.4 million gallons of water per minute out of the Chesapeake to cool the steam that spins electric turbines, with the water returned to the bay about 10 degrees warmer.

One drawback to the current system is that it kills about 69,000 fish a year that get trapped by the plant's intake filters, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Regulations imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2001 require new power plants to use advanced technology to avoid killing fish.

"Power plants that don't have cooling towers slaughter fish by the millions - they kill fish eggs and microscopic organisms that are an intricate part of an ecosystem like the Chesapeake Bay," said Reed Super, senior staff attorney for the Columbia University Environmental Law Clinic, which represented the Hudson Riverkeeper, an advocacy group, in a lawsuit that forced the new regulations.

"So, reducing the intake of water by 95 percent or more is going to reduce the fish kills by an equivalent percentage," Super said.

Richard McLean, a manager at the DNR's power plant research project, said the federal regulations would prohibit a new reactor at Calvert Cliffs from using the Chesapeake Bay as its primary cooling system.

"There was no way they could withdraw water from the bay and meet the new EPA regulations," said McLean. "So they have to do something else - essentially a cooling tower operation."

The two old reactors will keep sucking in and spitting out about 3.4 billion gallons of bay water a day as they continue running at least through 2034 and 2036, when their licenses expire.

A tiny amount of radioactive material escapes. But the levels are so low - .03 percent of the natural background radioactivity from the Earth - that they do not pose any significant threat to human health or the environment, according to a report by the Department of Natural Resources.

Johanna Neumann, policy advocate for the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, which has been protesting the Calvert Cliffs expansion, said it's good that the new reactor would use less water. But she said that is overshadowed by other "significant disadvantages" of nuclear power, for example the cost of construction and the lack of a long-term plan for storing spent fuel rods.

"The highly toxic radioactive waste that comes out of Calvert Cliffs lasts for tens of thousands of years," Neumann said.

The two reactors in the 1,829 megawatt plant produce enough electricity for about 1.3 million homes and use about 44 tons of enriched uranium a year. For more than a decade, the plant has been storing thousands of spent fuel rods in concrete vaults surrounded by barbed-wire fences on its guarded 2,057-acre site.

The new 1,600 megawatt reactor would have pools of water large enough to store spent fuel rods for 10 to 20 years. After that, the plant might put them in concrete bunkers similar to those the old plant uses, according to Constellation officials. The long-term plan, they said, would be to move all the waste to a federal repository in Yucca Mountain, Nev., whose opening has been delayed for decades.

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