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Calvert Cliffs nuclear facility well prepared for emergencies

Friday - 3/25/2011, 5:34pm  ET

Michelle Basch, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - In the wake of the nuclear crisis in Japan, officials with a nuclear power plant that sits about 50 miles southeast of D.C have some things they want area residents to know.

The Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Plant in Calvert County has two pressurized water reactors, which are slightly different from the boiling water reactors at the troubled Fukushima plant in Japan.

"One of the issues at Fukushima was that the diesel fuel storage tanks (for backup generators) were swept away by the tsunami. At Calvert, we have a fuel storage tank 45 feet above sea level," says George Gellrich, the plant's Site Vice President, citing another key difference. The Lusby plant has five emergency diesel fuel generators.

Gellrich says the plant is built to withstand hurricanes, tornadoes and missile strikes, and unlike the Fukushima plant, the area which the plant is built on isn't earthquake prone.

Despite the safety precautions, residents who live within 10 miles of the plant are encouraged to keep potassium iodide pills on hand, just in case.

"Absolutely, they should have it," says Bobby Fenwick, Calvert County's Emergency Management Director. The pills are distributed by the County Health Department.

About 40,000 people live within the 10-mile zone, and Fenwick says the county has enough potassium iodide for all of them.

Fenwick says questions about and requests for the pills slightly increased after the nuclear crisis in Japan started.

Calvert Cliffs began producing power in 1975. Constellation Energy Nuclear Group handles the operation of the plant.

There are four different classifications to describe the severity of an emergency at a nuclear power plant. The least serious is called an "Unusual Event," followed by an "Alert" and a Site Area Emergency. The most serious classification is a "General Emergency."

Only once in its history has the plant experienced a problem that rose to the level of "Alert," occurring in the 1990s.

Last year, a tiny roof leak led to an electrical problem and an automatic shutdown of the plant. This was not considered serious enough to be classified as any of the emergencies described above, but Gellrich says improvements have been made to ensure it doesn't happen again.

"We've invested over $1 million in the last year in roof repairs, and we're going to invest another $26 million over the next 3 years on roofs," he says.

Calvert Cliffs conducts emergency drills several times a year to prepare for emergencies, and local and state officials are involved.

The tri-county area closest to the plant has a series of sirens to alert residents in the event of a major problem, and Calvert County has a network of radiation detectors. The next test of the sirens is set for Monday, April 4th at noon.

For more information about the plant, click here:

For more information about evacuation zones how to obtain potassium iodide, click here.

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(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All rights reserved.)