By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 13, 2005
The orange-and-white buoys, bobbing slowly in the waters in front of the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant, are covered in block letters that read "DANGER" and "KEEP OUT" and "RESTRICTED."
Pete Dahlberg barely glanced at the signs as he floated a few hundred feet from the plant in his 21-foot motorboat, Runaway Ruthy, with his 8-year-old son, Nick, in tow. They hooked six-inch, neon-green lures onto their poles and cast them into the Chesapeake Bay in search of rockfish.
"You can't beat the nuclear power plant as a fishing spot," said Dahlberg, 41, a fishing guide who goes by the name Walleye Pete and has lived for five years in Calvert County, home of the plant, 50 miles southeast of Washington. "It's the perfect place to bring the wife and kids."
Such warm feelings for the plant have transformed Calvert into something of a national anomaly: a community that has developed a love affair with what hundreds of other cities and towns have long regarded as, at best, an eyesore and at worst, a life-threatening menace.
Residents of this Southern Maryland county like the plant's two reactors so much, in fact, that they want another. The Lusby facility is on a short list of six sites that could become the location of the first nuclear energy reactor to be built in the United States in 30 years.
Locals here quickly rattle off the plant's benefits: It's the county's largest taxpayer, biggest private employer and, of course, a top-notch fishing hole.
Almost no one worries about the possibility of accidents or radiation leaks. "It doesn't even, like, cross my mind," said Roxanne Arellano, 18, of Lusby. "You kind of don't think about it. It's just there, I guess."
That sort of blase attitude might seem strange to those who began to fear nuclear plants after the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania and the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl facility in Ukraine. The most famous plant for many young adults is the comically dysfunctional plant on "The Simpsons" that spawned a mutant three-eyed fish named Blinky.
But those negative images couldn't seem more off base to Arellano and the other 60 or so locals who spent a recent scorching afternoon at a swimming pool for Calvert Cliffs employees and their families on the nuclear plant's 2,300-acre grounds. Babies in diapers tottered by the edge of the 82.5-foot-long pool, which is ringed by a barbed-wire fence. Girls in bikinis baked in the sun. Arellano slid into the pool to teach the children of plant employees how to tread water and do the backstroke.
The kids splashed in the water, seemingly unconcerned about the two nearby reactors spitting out 1,700 megawatts of power. Eight-year-old McKenzie Turpin, though, had a gripe: She is not allowed to go to the plant on Take Our Daughters to Work Day with her mom because of extra security since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. "She doesn't like it that President Bush won't let mommy take her to work," said Raeann Turpin, 33, a computer analyst at the plant who lives in Huntingtown.
Few people in Calvert County are even that critical of the nuclear plant. Instead, most praise the facility for reversing the economic fortunes of this once-impoverished county.
When Calvert Cliffs went online in 1975, the county's total budget was $6.6 million. The plant's $6.8 million tax payment the following year more than doubled Calvert's revenue.
"We went almost overnight from being the second-poorest county in Maryland to being one of the richest," said Kirsti Uunila, the county's historic preservation planner.
The nuclear plant, which is owned by Baltimore-based Constellation Energy, pays about $15.3 million in property taxes -- about 10 percent of the county's revenue -- and employs about 1,000 workers. A third reactor could add as many as 400 jobs and millions in tax revenue.
That's why county officials were thrilled to learn in May that Calvert Cliffs is one of six sites that the nation's largest consortium of nuclear power companies is considering for a new type of advanced reactor. The consortium, NuStart Energy Development LLC, plans to narrow that list to two sites by Oct. 1 and apply to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for licenses to build and operate plants there. The group hopes the reactors will be operational by 2014.
Sipping from a marble-colored coffee mug emblazoned with the Constellation logo, Board of County Commissioners President David F. Hale (R-Owings) called for a resolution last month in support of a third reactor in the county. It was approved unanimously by the five-member board. Not a single person spoke in opposition.
Board members also praised the plant's outreach to the community. Calvert Cliffs said its employees raised $330,351 for local charities last year and volunteered 4,300 hours of time, many of which were logged teaching public school students about the plant.
"I do a pro-nuclear power session," said Elizabeth McAndrew, 26, a senior engineer at the plant who is one of 32 Calvert Cliffs employees who tutored and taught in the county's public schools.
The nuclear plant also distributes coloring books about electricity to elementary school children.
As they drifted in the Chesapeake Bay in front of Calvert Cliffs, the Dahlbergs were a lot more concerned with fish than the mechanics of nuclear power. Over the years, Pete Dahlberg has gotten his fair share of jokes about glowing in the dark and three-eyed fish, but he still doesn't understand why outsiders don't trust his friends and neighbors who work at the plant.
"Do they think that Homer Simpson's up in the place running it?" he asked.
Whatever their view of the plant, outsiders continue to come for the fish at Calvert Cliffs -- some from as far as Boston. During February and March, when the rockfish are biggest and most plentiful around the plant, dozens of clients come to fish there with Dahlberg, who casts his lures near the plant every day.
On a recent morning when temperatures pushed past 84 degrees, the Dahlbergs pulled up to the huge stream of water being discharged from the plant, which local anglers have nicknamed "the river" or "the rips." It reeked of sulfur.
The boat's electronic fish finder lit up. "Look at that. That's fish!" Dahlberg yelled to Nick. "They're thick under the boat, buddy. You have about a 20-incher chasing your lure!"
Suddenly Nick, in a tiny, red life vest, lurched forward as he began reeling in a catch. "Good job, buddy," his father shouted. The two high-fived in the air.
"It's fun here," Nick said. "It's easier to catch fish than other places."
Then Nick pointed at the nuclear power plant and asked: "Dad, what do they do in there?"
"They make electricity, so you can play your PlayStation," Dahlberg replied.
Staring down at his untied white sneakers, Nick said, "Ohhhhhhh." Then he grabbed a shiny lure off the deck and tried to catch another rockfish.