CALVERT CLIFFS, MD. -- Like giant burial vaults, the stark concrete bunkers sit in silence, awaiting their first occupants.

But instead of human remains, they will receive thousands of slender steel rods containing highly radioactive spent fuel from Maryland's Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant a quarter-mile away. The rods are now in temporary cooling pools at Calvert Cliffs.

The transfer is coming none too soon for Calvert Cliffs. The nuclear plant, like many others across the country, is running out of storage space, a problem caused in part by stalled government plans to build a huge, permanent burial site for nuclear waste in Nevada.

Calvert Cliffs had to make room for more spent-fuel rods or face a shutdown -- a move that would have driven up the cost of electricity in central Maryland and ravaged the economy of Calvert County, where the utility is the biggest employer and the biggest taxpayer.

County Commissioner Pat Buehler said that most of the nuclear plant's 1,800 employees live in Calvert County and that the plant pays $15 million in taxes each year to a county with a $70 million budget.

In the next few weeks, Calvert Cliffs workers will start moving the rods by truck, hauling them in 20-ton steel canisters sealed inside 80-ton radiation-shielded casks. At the new $24 million storage site, a hydraulic ramrod will shove the canisters out of the casks and into the cylindrical concrete vaults.

The transfer will mark the first time nuclear waste has been put into "dry storage" in the Washington area. Of the 111 nuclear plants in the United States, only four, including Virginia Power's plant in Surry, near Williamsburg, have such alternative storage, but several more are considering seeking dry-storage licenses from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Calvert Cliffs, which opened in 1975, is operated by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and generates about 40 percent of the electricity used by the utility's 1 million customers in central Maryland.

The storage plan initially caused concern among residents in this largely rural area 70 miles southeast of Washington. But county officials said federal regulators allayed fears by imposing such stringent safety standards on the facility that chances of a radiation leak by accident, natural disaster or terrorist attack are next to nil.

Also, Calvert Cliffs spokesman Karl Neddenien said, the oldest fuel rods, which have been in the pools of water since the 1970s and have lost the most radioactivity, will be removed first.

"I have no concern at all. . . . I think they've taken all the precautions they can," said Commissioner Buehler, owner of a nearby grocery store.

Larry Noll, the storage facility's project manager, said the steel-reinforced concrete facility is designed to withstand lightning strikes, forest fires, hurricanes, armor-piercing projectiles fired by terrorists, even a 2,400-pound car hurled by a 200-mph tornado.

NRC officials said that the land formations under the facility are deemed stable and that an earthquake strong enough to cause critical damage is unlikely.

Radiation monitors also are posted around the storage bunkers. Noll said there will be "some radiation coming out {of the bunkers}, but it will be well below {federal} safety standards."

Two parallel chain link fences topped with barbed wire surround the bunkers. Surveillance cameras and motion detectors scan the grounds, and armed guards patrol the perimeter.

"They've done a real good job of construction and site preparation," said Charles Haughney, head of the NRC's source containment branch. "I am quite encouraged."

Even Robert Pollard, a senior engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, which is frequently critical of the nuclear industry, said dry-storage facilities like that at Calvert Cliffs are safer than cooling pools.

"It stops {water} corrosion and eliminates accidents from loss of water," he said.

But he warned that the bunkers, which are being built as temporary facilities, may "take on a permanent nature" if the proposed national repository in Nevada is never built.

Noll said the two sets of bunkers at Calvert Cliffs will meet the facility's waste-disposal needs until about 2006. Contingency plans call for three more sets of bunkers, good at least until the licenses on the plant's two reactors expire in 2015 and 2017.

In Nevada, the U.S. Department of Energy is testing Yucca Mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, as a permanent burial site, but Nevada officials are fighting the plan. Even if approved, it would not be ready until at least 2010, according to federal officials.

Meanwhile, because so many spent-fuel storage pools are nearing capacity, the federal government is considering an interim central site, called a monitored retrievable storage facility. That idea also has met opposition, especially in the West, from people who question government assurances that the facility would be temporary.

At Calvert Cliffs, the two small storage pools near the plant's twin reactors were designed nearly 20 years ago with the expectation that the spent fuel would be taken away periodically for reprocessing. That plan was scrapped in 1977. Then planners began awaiting construction of the Yucca Mountain repository.

Even though the Yucca Mountain plan is now on hold, Calvert Cliffs officials and Calvert County officials said they consider the new bunkers temporary.

"Hopefully, the federal government is going to find a permanent site," Buehler said.