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Quake another big obstacle for nukes in U.S.

Maryland’s only nuclear power plant is fundamentally different from the endangered Fukushima plant in Japan, but what’s happening on the other side of the world could suppress the public’s appetite for more reactors here.

The Fukushima plant, damaged by a 9.0 earthquake and ensuing tsunami on March 11, has six boiling water reactors. Maryland’s Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant, located in Lusby on the southwest coast of the Chesapeake Bay, has two pressurized water reactors. Proposals to add a third reactor stalled in financial negotiations and a French company’s bid to take on the expansion now appears even less likely to come to fruition.

“Public opinion has changed in the last couple days,” Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot said.

Franchot said economics are still the biggest obstacle for proponents of a Calvert Cliffs expansion, but the situation in Japan would have a “huge impact on the Nuclear Renaissance” across the country.

Questions about the design of boiling water reactors appear to date almost to the time Fukushima started operating in 1971. The Center for Public Integrity reported March 15 that in 1972, Stephen Hanauer, a senior member of the Atomic Energy Commission staff, said the “pressure suppression” safeguards built into such reactors were not as effective as “dry” radiation containment structures like towers or domes.

As a pressurized water reactor plant, Calvert Cliffs does not allow water to boil within the reactor core, but rather transfers the heat to a steam generator that produces electricity. Pressurized water reactors have domed containment units that enclose the reactors entirely — including the steam generator and pressurizer.

Diane Screnci, of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Office of Public Affairs, said the containment units are made of reinforced concrete with a steel lining.

Screnci said boiling water reactors and pressurized water reactors have similar safety records.

“Both of those types of plants are operating in the United States and operating safely,” she said.

Constellation Energy Group owns the Calvert Cliffs plant. Mark Sullivan, director of communications for the company’s nuclear group, said in an e-mail that safety was the company’s top priority.

“We have emergency response plans in place which are approved at the federal, state and local government agencies,” Sullivan said. “The plans have detailed procedures which are routinely reviewed and used in training of our teams. We have training exercises and drills to test our ability to effectively implement our plan and are formally evaluated by the NRC.”

Sullivan also said Calvert Cliffs’ reactors would be shut down if certain levels of seismic activity were detected in the area and that the NRC required all plants to be designed to withstand natural phenomena like tsunamis.

Quakes and tsunamis are exceedingly unlikely around Calvert Cliffs. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there has never been an earthquake centered in the Washington, D.C., area in recorded history (though the area has felt mild effects from quakes centered elsewhere).

Nathan Hultman, a University of Maryland professor in the School of Public Policy who is an expert on atomic energy policy, said reactor containment units in the U.S. are built to withstand tremendous impacts — even the force of a plane flying into them, a scenario that came up after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But Hultman said the cooling ponds where used nuclear rods are placed at most facilities are sometimes more vulnerable. Spent rods must be radioactively cooled for several years before they can enter “dry cask” storage. Fires have broken out in some of the pools at the damaged Fukushima plant, sending high levels of radiation into the atmosphere.

“Even if someone did try to fly an airplane into a nuclear reactor … it’s likely not going to actually break the reactor and release radioactivity,” Hultman said. “But if you fly the airplane into the pool of spent fuel, you can create essentially a dirty bomb, right, from just this activity and maybe even set the thing on fire.”

Sullivan did not respond to an e-mail and phone message Wednesday inquiring about how Calvert Cliffs stores and protects spent nuclear rods during cooling.

Hultman said Fukushima was on the “knife edge” Wednesday — that there is still the possibility of containment, but the plant is teetering on the brink of disaster. He said that if containment fails, low levels of radiation might reach the U.S., which could sour the nation on nuclear power for a long time.

Even if the Fukushima crisis is completely contained today, he added, it would still be the second-worst nuclear power accident in history, trailing only the Chernobyl disaster. That explosion at a nuclear power plant in Ukraine in 1986 gave off a cloud of radioactive fallout that caused thousands of cancer deaths.

Fukushima could lead to more U.S. regulations, which would make it more costly to operate old plants or build new ones. Hultman said that could be all it takes to stop a “Nuclear Renaissance” in its tracks after 30 years of safe operation.

“In the end you’re only boiling water to create electricity — that’s all you’re doing with a nuclear power plant,” Hultman said. “You can create electrical potential in all kinds of other ways and move electrons in all kinds of other ways. So if a utility’s looking at needing to fill a load, the combination of public opinion and changes in costs, both of those have to go into their decision. Clearly it’s going to be more difficult, in the near term at least.”

Capital News Service reporter David Saleh Rauf contributed to this article.