Unistar Nuclear has plans to build the first of a series of nuclear power plants about 50 miles south of my home in Annapolis at a place called Calvert Cliffs. Right now, there are two 850 MWe PWR units originally supplied by Combustion Engineering operating at that site.
Throughout its history, Calvert Cliffs has been a precedent setting site. Following the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)- which was signed into law on January 1, 1970 by President Richard M. Nixon – Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant (CCNPP) became a test case that eventually established the completion of an Environmental Impact Statement for all new nuclear reactors constructed in the United States. The specific concern of the organizations that sued to halt the construction of the plant was that the Atomic Energy Commission had not done an adequate job of assessing the impact of heated water on the Chesapeake Bay.
The AEC’s position was that its job was to assess the special risks associated with using radioactive substances while the states had the responsibility for more common forms of pollution like thermal discharges – which are common for all kinds of steam plants no matter what the heat source. However, NEPA Section 102(c) provides that every federal agency shall:
include in every recommendation or report on proposals for legislation and other major Federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment, a detailed statement by the responsible official on –
(i) the environmental impact of the proposed action,
(ii) any adverse environmental effects which cannot be avoided should the proposal be implemented,
(iii) alternatives to the proposed action,
(iv) the relationship between local short-term uses of man’s environment and the maintenance and enhancement of long-term productivity, and
(v) any irreversible and irretrievable commitments of resources which would be involved in the proposed action should it be implemented.
The federal judge assigned to the case determined that licensing a nuclear plant was – by his definition – a major federal action that required strict adherence to NEPA section 102. As a result of the decision, nuclear plant licensing was suspended for 18 months while other plants went through the exhausting process that included moving large quantities of money from ratepayers into the pockets of the consultants that perform the requisite studies.
After many years of cost-increasing delay and following the preparation of a detailed EIS, Calvert Cliffs Unit One began commercial operation in 1975 and Unit Two started supplying customers in 1977.
Calvert Cliffs also had a chance to set a precedent in a more positive way. In March of 2000 CCNPP became the first nuclear plant to successfully navigate the NRC license extension process and achieve a 20 year extension of its original 40 year license. The existing plants are now licensed to operate until 2034 and 2036 respectively. BGE, the plant’s owner at the time, decided to go through the process earlier than necessary in order to ensure that a pending decision to replace the plant’s steam generators would provide economic returns through the extended licensing period.
According to a December 25, 2007 article in the Baltimore Sun titled Nuclear power has new shape, CCNPP will once again lead the way. The new plant will not use the once through cooling using Bay water directly that caused the original concerns about thermal pollution. Though the heat has proven to be a non-issue for the Bay, the current concern is the fact that the intake flows cause some quantity of fish and other wildlife to die in the filtering screens on the plant intakes.
The new plant will also not use the iconic 600 foot tall, mushroom cloud shaped cooling towers that are commonly associated with nuclear plants – though they are also used by coal fired plants. As a Chesapeake Bay area resident, I am happy about that – those tall towers are butt ugly.
Instead CCNPP Unit Three (and possibly a yet to be discussed Unit Four) will use a forced draft cooling system that is about 1/3 as tall, though quite a bit broader than the ones used for the last generation of nuclear and coal plants. In addition to the reduced visual impact of the new design, they will be more effective during the hot summer days that are pretty common in the mid-Atlantic region of the eastern United States. They will cost a bit more originally, but the ability to sell more power during the peak load periods in the summer might make the cost a wash depending on the assumptions for electricity production costs.
Since I have heard Michael Wallace of Constellation Energy describe his plans to ensure that even the color of the bathrooms for the US EPRs will be identical in all locations as part of the drive for a standardized fleet; I assume that all of the rest of the US EPR plants that Unistar Nuclear builds will use these same low, wide, and forced air cooling towers.