A doughnut-shaped building that looks like a sports arena may soon rise beside the Chesapeake Bay – a cooling tower for a huge new nuclear reactor proposed at the Calvert Cliffs power plant in Southern Maryland.

The state-of-the-art cooling system would enable the new reactor to recycle water, thus drawing 98 percent less from the bay than the two existing reactors, which opened in 1975 and 1977.

The low and wide circular structure would look different from the tall, hourglass-shaped cooling towers that have become an iconic symbol of nuclear power – as featured, for example, in the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant where the cartoon character Homer Simpson works.

“We are using a new technology – a hybrid cooling tower – instead of drawing large amounts of water out of the Chesapeake Bay,” said George Vanderheyden, a vice president at Constellation Energy and president of a joint venture called UniStar Nuclear Energy LLC that has proposed the $4 billion reactor in partnership with a French company, Electricite de France.

Some environmentalists praise the idea of using less bay water but still question the safety and cost of nuclear power.

If the project wins federal and state approvals, and Constellation decides to proceed, the reactor could be the first started in the United States since the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979.

The “evolutionary power reactor,” targeted for opening in 2015, would be among a class of eight generators proposed around the world that would be larger than any operating today. The new Calvert Cliffs reactor would boost the amount of electricity that Maryland gets from nuclear power from 20 percent to 35 percent.

The Calvert Cliffs plant does not have cooling towers today. Instead, its two reactors draw 2.4 million gallons of water per minute out of the Chesapeake to cool the steam that spins electric turbines, with the water returned to the bay about 10 degrees warmer.

One drawback to the current system is that it kills about 69,000 fish a year that get trapped by the plant’s intake filters, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Regulations imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2001 require new power plants to use advanced technology to avoid killing fish.

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