A final report issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission yesterday recommends that the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant be relicensed, declaring that the risks of any adverse environmental impact are too small to justify closing the plant.
Unless a decision in a federal court lawsuit accusing the NRC of excluding the public from examining safety concerns about the plant goes against the agency, the environmental impact study clears the way for Calvert Cliffs to become the first nuclear plant in the nation to be granted a license renewal.
The report, produced by the NRC staff, concludes that it would be "unreasonable" to deny the renewal to the plant on the Chesapeake Bay shore in Calvert County. "The significance of the potential environmental effects of renewal of the operating license is small," the report says.
A citizens group challenging the license renewal says the study is compromised because independent analysts were not given the chance to review the operations. "There was no due process for the public," said Stephen Kohn, an attorney for the National Whistleblowers Center, whose suit against the NRC is awaiting a ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals.
But a spokesman for Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., the operator of the plant, said yesterday that the utility and the NRC had reviewed the equipment and operations at Calvert Cliffs "as no other nuclear plant has ever been studied."
The license renewal has "been a very thorough process that's geared toward including public participation," said Karl Neddenien, the BGE spokesman.
Two public meetings about the renewal were held, but critics charge the forums did not provide an opportunity for meaningful public input.
The report now goes to the Environmental Protection Agency for review and can be examined by other government bodies, but NRC officials said they do not expect problems. "We've received no communication so far indicating that any agencies are raising any objections," said Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the NRC.
NRC inspectors also will conduct another safety review of the plant next month, officials said.
Final approval of the license renewal by the NRC is anticipated in the spring, possibly as early as March, Sheehan said.
The lawsuit is a potential roadblock.
During oral arguments in the case last week, Judge Patricia M. Wald accused the commission of giving a "bum's rush" to citizens groups seeking to examine the safety of plans to renew operating licenses for the plant's two reactors.
Under pressure from Congress and the utility industry, the NRC has created a fast-track system for renewing licenses.
Calvert Cliffs, which is the largest power plant operated by BGE and generates enough electricity for 450,000 homes, is the first of 103 nuclear plants in the country to apply for renewal.
Although the current 40-year licenses do not expire for 15 more years, BGE applied for early renewal. "We needed time to plan for alternatives if it was turned down," Neddenien said. "We didn't want to wait until the last minute. It hadn't been done before, and we expected to encounter unknowns."
But the Whistleblowers group argues that the schedule set for license renewal represents a safety hazard because experts hired by the group have not been given the opportunity to examine the plant for potential safety hazards, such as the condition of pipes and ventilation systems.
With a great deal at stake for the future of the U.S. nuclear power industry, utility companies have been closely monitoring the Calvert Cliffs renewal.