A federal appeals judge accused the Nuclear Regulatory Commission yesterday of giving a "bum's rush" to a citizens group seeking to examine the safety of plans to renew the license of the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant.

The comment came during oral arguments before the U.S. Court of Appeals in a suit by the National Whistleblowers Center accusing the NRC of excluding the public from examining safety concerns about the operation of the nuclear plant on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay in southern Calvert County.

Calvert Cliffs, which began generating power in 1975 and is operated by Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., is the first of the 103 nuclear power plants in the nation to seek renewal of its operating license.

The case tests a fast-track system the NRC has created for renewing licenses, and it is being closely watched by the nuclear power industry. The commission established a streamlined process under pressure from Congress to remove some of the uncertainty faced by utility officials trying to make business decisions without knowing whether they will be able to continue to operate nuclear plants.

The NRC says it can shave one to three years off the renewal process and still safely regulate the industry. But critics contend that the streamlining comes at a cost to public safety, because the NRC is not holding formal public hearings and has set a schedule that watchdog groups say they cannot meet.

"It is a bum's rush schedule, considering this is Calvert Cliffs, which has had a controversial history," said Judge Patricia M. Wald.

Stephen Kohn, representing the Whistleblowers, argued that the NRC did not give experts hired by the group adequate time to examine potential safety hazards, such as whether pipes have been corroded by saltwater or weakened by stress, or whether ventilation systems are holding up.

"The notion that you have one month to come up with everything you need to contest a nuclear plant renewal does strike one," Wald said.

Marjorie Nordlinger, representing the office of the general counsel for the NRC, told the court that the process is not aimed at "excluding meaningful participation" by citizens, but at "excluding meaningless participation for people who don't do their homework."

"The question is, how fast can you do your homework?" responded Wald. "It really sounds like you just don't want them in there, quite frankly."

The three-judge panel from the D.C. Circuit harshly questioned both sides at yesterday morning's hearing. "If we lose this case, I don't think there can be effective intervention ever," Kohn said after the hearing.

The accident involving a uranium processing plant in Japan last week in which dozens of people were exposed to radiation underscores that nuclear power is "extremely dangerous," Kohn added. "That's why you need so many safety systems."

Calvert Cliffs generates about half the electricity sold by BGE and produced a record amount last year--13.3 million megawatts. Most of that power is used in the Baltimore area and central Maryland.

The plant's two reactors operate with 40-year licenses, one of which will expire in 2014 and the other two years later. But BGE decided to apply for early renewal as part of an effort to develop long-term market strategies in the face of industry deregulation.

"As plants have approached their termination date, most utilities are closing them down," Kohn said. "Every component of a plant is adversely affected by aging. The question is how much."