CALVERT CLIFFS' COMEBACK Concerns on safety precede full power


Maryland's only commercial nuclear power plant is expecte to crank up to full power for the first time in two years next month, following major changes in its operation and management to reverse a late-1980s slide in safe performance.

Depending on the outcome of a federal inspection completed Friday at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant, the Unit 2 reactor -- under extensive repair since May 1989 -- could gain approval to join its 825-megawatt twin on line by early March.

"They had a lot to do, and they've come a long way," said Curtis Cowgill, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's section chief of reactor projects for Calvert Cliffs. "But the utility must demonstrate it has done what it promised and can safely run two reactors."

Those promised changes involve more than nuts and bolts. They were ordered by the NRC to correct a casual attitude toward procedures and safety vigilance that the regulatory agency identified as a factor in the nation's worst nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in 1979.

And for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., the restart represents both an opportunity and a challenge, as it reaps the benefits of full production from its two reactors in Southern Maryland while remaining under pressure to prove that the changes are adequate and enduring.

"Calvert Cliffs ran well for years," said Christian Poindexter, vice chairman of BG&E;'s board. "It was in need of some overhaul, both mechanical and management, and we've made those changes with deliberate care. With the long term in mind, we'll continue taking care."

But critics are not reassured, pointing to the many postponements in dates for restarting Unit 2 -- at least a dozen since leaks were discovered in its pressurizer vessel 21 months ago -- as evidence of continuing leadership problems and increasing breakdowns in aging components.

They argue that a planned six-week maintenance outage for Unit 1 in late March means the two reactors will operate only briefly together, conveniently delaying a prolonged test of BG&E;'s ability to handle full production at Calvert Cliffs until this summer.

And they look at management changes and see a reshuffling of " the same old deck, an isolated, arrogant hierarchy that oversaw the performance decline that cost BG&E; $640,000 in fines for safety violations since April 1988 and landed it on the NRC's "watch list" of problem nuclear plants in December 1988.

Among the potentially dangerous shortcomings noted by the NRC after a 1989 inspection were "a management philosophy which appeared to emphasize production over safety, weak procedural adherence [and] inadequate procedures." Serious communications problems were also criticized.

"If they're the same plant they were a year ago, they're not ready," said Scott McNeil, a former NRC inspector who was the project manager for Calvert Cliffs from July 1986 to January 1990. "They were just struggling along."

John Glynn, the state people's counsel -- responsible for challenging BG&E;'s bid to pass on to its customers the shutdown's cost -- said he believes management "suffers from an excess of self-confidence" and "still doesn't appreciate the situation they're in. This company wants to forget the negative stuff. They want the public to forget it, too."

It's clear from NRC reports and company statements over the past three years that BG&E; was slow to recognize the performance decline and quick to claim a turnaround, even though it has been on the watch list nearly as long as a handful of chronically bad nuclear facilities.

The plant was placed on the list again Jan. 24 for at least another six months.

"We expected it. What will really get us off the list is some event-free operation of both units for a period of time," said George Creel, BG&E;'s vice president for nuclear energy. A veteran of the company's fossil fuel operations, he is a key example of the management restructuring that looked to the company's own pool of talent rather than to outside experts.

"That doesn't mean I'm agreeing we belong on the list. We were never unsafe, we were never a threat to the public, and the NRC never shut us down," he added. "Clearly they felt it was necessary to get BG&E;'s attention, and they did. But we were getting the message before that."

The most shocking "message" signaling an end to a decade of reliable, non-controversial and very profitable operation came Sept. 15, 1988, when a maintenance worker suffocated and drowned while trying to rescue a colleague from a nitrogen-topped water tank at the plant. Neither worker wore a respirator, a violation of strict safety procedures.

But the disturbing litany of problems didn't begin with that incident or end there, and the NRC levied a total of $325,000 in major fines for serious violations in the 18 months beginning that September.

The NRC's most recently released major review, for the 13 months ending Dec. 31, 1989 -- while taking note of an improved attitude of management -- made it clear that most areas of performance had no direction to go but up.

Utility management has had a lot of time to think about the problems that have kept Calvert Cliffs on the watch list for 25 months.

Regulators have never said that Calvert Cliffs was in danger of a serious accident, such as Three Mile Island's, or as badly run as the PeachBottom nuclear plant when it was shut down in 1987 for safety violations that included control room operators sleeping on the job.

But the NRC places great emphasis on strict adherence to good procedures. "These are big, complex machines. They require a lot of knowledge to operate," said Mr. Cowgill. "You need a solid system so performance doesn't suffer when people change or things start to go wrong."

Calvert Cliffs "had the worst procedures I've ever seen," said Mr. McNeil, the former NRC project manager for BG&E;'s nuclear plant. "I identified procedural problems there as soon as I started in 1986."

Plant general manager Robert Denton -- another longtime employee who worked his way up through the BG&E; ranks -- subscribes to a view that regulatory rules began to change after TMI, gradually catching up with older, more established plants like Calvert Cliffs that made NRC-mandated improvements but saw no safety-related reasons to modernize fully.

"The expectations within our industry grew," Mr. Denton said. "There's a pattern in the business world that when companies get near the top, they tend to relax. We were on top for 10 years, and we didn't notice that the yardstick got taller."

That explanation infuriates some observers.

"To say they didn't know the rules is an admission of either management ineptitude or willful misconduct," said Thomas Magette, a former Department of Natural Resources official who had monitored Calvert Cliffs for the state. "Yes, the NRC got more attentive. Yes, there were higher expectations, and most plants complied."

And the NRC staff -- in an unofficial draft report based on an inspection in March 1989 -- blasted BG&E;: "Acting out of a posture of complacency, isolationism and ignorance, licensee management failed to recognize and respond to changes in the nuclear industry, the regulatory environment and their own organization."

NRC officials refuse to comment on that scathing internal report, do officials at BG&E;, although Mr. Cowgill tersely responds to the utility's claims that it was already "getting the message" before December 1988, by saying, "They're on the watch list. That speaks for itself."

But the agency's most recent pronouncements regarding Calvert Cliffs indicate that many problems have been corrected, if not all of those relating to the plant's 9,000 procedures.

"The licensee's performance has shown continued but varied levels of improvement in all areas of concern," said James Taylor, executive director for operations, in the Jan. 22 "watch list" letter to BG&E.;

Mr. Creel said the NRC "has a significantly higher level of confidence today that BG&E; and its management is basically managing our affairs at Calvert Cliffs in the necessary safety areas in a very aggressive and active manner."

There are many examples of the "new" Calvert Cliffs, according to Mr. Denton. He mentions a comprehensive Performance Improvement Plan -- with more than $30 million budgeted for a complete upgrade of procedures by 1992 -- and a Problem Report Review Committee, which meets daily to consider all problemsidentified by workers in the plant.

"What disturbed the NRC was they had to tell us when we were doing something wrong. We lacked that self-assessment ability," said. "Most times now, when we have something abnormal, our own team of investigators is there before the regulator, and they stand back."

Mr. Denton said delays in the Unit 2 restart have been caused by the drain on resources to power up Unit 1 last year, the technical challenge of fixing the pressurizer leaks and the unexpected appearance of maintenance tasks such as replacing valves in the saltwater cooling system from the Chesapeake Bay.

"It's just like NASA after Challenger refocused its energies to make sure all systems were safe. They weren't driven by schedules," Mr. Poindexter said. "We're not going to restart until we're ready."

But not everyone is willing to take BG&E; at its word or assume the NRC is watching out for the best interests of Marylanders who would suffer if a major accident and radiation release did occur at Calvert Cliffs.

"A plant recognized by the NRC as a problem plant should be closed," said Kenneth Bossong, director of the Public Citizen Critical Mass Energy Project. "If they don't improve quickly enough to get off the list, it suggests plant management hasn't learned its lesson."

The NRC will be watching management effectiveness and operating performance closely as long as Calvert Cliffs remains on the watch list.

"Management has got to keep at it," said Mr. Magette, the former DNR official. "If management goes away, Calvert Cliffs will slide back a lot faster than it got there in the first place."

Calvert Cliffs' bumpy road

May 1975 -- Unit 1 begins operation.

April 1977 -- Unit 2 begins operation.

August 1980 -- $21,000 NRC fine, first in Calvert Cliffs history.

November 1983 -- $60,000 NRC fine.

September 1985 -- $50,000 NRC fine.

Summer 1987 -- International Atomic Energy Agency team of safety experts calls Calvert Cliffs "one of the better performers" in the industry.

April 1988 -- $300,000 NRC fine.

September 1988 -- $150,000 NRC fine.

Sept. 15, 1988 -- Worker suffocates and drowns in nitrogen-topped water tank trying to rescue a colleague. Neither was wearing required respirator.

Dec. 21, 1988 -- NRC puts Calvert Cliffs on watch list.

Jan. 30, 1989 -- Management changes. George Creel appointed as vice president of nuclear energy.

March 24, 1989 -- Unit 2 shut down for scheduled refueling.

May 5, 1989 -- Leaks discovered in Unit 2 pressurizer.

Jay 6, 1989 -- Unit 1 shut down to check for pressurizer leaks.

May 23, 1989 -- BG&E; agrees in letter to the NRC to keep both units shut down to correct management and operating problems and to seek permission for restart.

CJuly 13, 1989 -- $75,000 NRC fine for two safety violations, one of which could have resulted in the release of radiation to the outside.

Feb. 7, 1990 -- Management changes at Calvert Cliffs. Robert Denton, former manager of quality assurance and staff services, becomes plant manager.

March 7, 1990 -- $100,000 NRC fine for low temperature #i overpressurization violation, which could have caused dangerous cracking of the steel reactor vessels.

GApril 14, 1990 -- Unit 1 returns to full power for the first time since May 1989.

July 27, 1990 -- $20 million repair completed on Unit 2 pressurizer.

ec. 6, 1990 -- $12,500 NRC fine for security violations. Brings total NRC fines in Calvert Cliffs operating history to $768,500.

BJan. 24, 1991 -- Calvert Cliffs reaffirmed on the NRC's watch list of problem nuclear plants requiring close monitoring.

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