By Lisa Rein and Christy Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 4, 2008
As Maryland regulators begin hearings tonight on a proposed third nuclear reactor in Calvert County, one element in the historically raucous debate over nuclear power is notably absent: widespread opposition.
The passionate anti-nuclear protests of the 1970s and '80s have largely yielded in Washington and its suburbs to alarm over rising fuel prices, global warming and a lack of quick, easy solutions to quench the thirst for power.
This region could be a testing ground for the so-called nuclear renaissance. As the Public Service Commission starts a month of hearings on Constellation Energy Group's initial application to add a third nuclear plant at its Calvert Cliffs site 50 miles southeast of Washington, Dominion Virginia Power, which supplies all of Northern Virginia's electricity, is pressing ahead with plans to expand its reactors southwest of Fredericksburg.
They are the only sites in the mid-Atlantic region where the industry is vying to build the first new nuclear plants since the widely publicized reactor accident at Three Mile Island in 1979. The nuclear industry, which now operates 104 plants across the country, has tentative plans to add up to 30 reactors nationwide.
Some environmental groups adamantly oppose the new reactors, but the plants are receiving growing political support from citizen groups and officials wary of their states' dependence on coal. Nuclear plants do not emit the carbon gases that contribute to global warming. With little new electricity being generated in Maryland in recent years, state regulators predict rolling blackouts as soon as 2011 unless capacity is added.
In Virginia last week, a panel on reducing climate change appointed by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) considered adding nuclear power to its menu of recommendations. The governor's energy plan also supports nuclear power as one solution to meeting the state's energy needs, which are expected to grow by the equivalent of a million homes in the next decade.
After touring the Calvert Cliffs plant in May, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) said that developing better energy technology in a time of climate change is a "moral imperative" and that nuclear power must be part of the solution. The governor considers himself an environx mentalist and has fought for new protections for the Chesapeake Bay. But his visit to the proposed new reactor's site "showed his recognition that nuclear power has to be a part of how we keep our lights on," said Malcolm Woolf, director of the Maryland Energy Administration.
Cindy Schwartz, director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group, acknowledged that "there's not going to be a huge outcry" against a new plant at Calvert Cliffs. "The technology has changed, and the political and environmental landscape has changed," she said. "If you're concerned about climate change, where's the power coming from? That's why you're not hearing the same opposition you heard 20 years ago."
Federal officials approved an early site permit last fall for the Virginia reactor North Anna, which was one of dozens of sites across the country where planned nuclear expansions were ordered and then canceled in the 1980s after hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on construction. Maryland regulators are expected to issue conditions for a state permit for Calvert Cliffs by the end of the year.
But a final ruling from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission on the Maryland and Virginia proposals is two or three years off. Construction costs could reach $4 billion for the Calvert Cliffs project, and even with generous federal tax incentives and loan guarantees available for a limited number of nuclear projects, the energy companies say they have made no firm decision to go ahead with new plants, which would roughly double the generating capacity of their existing ones. If they are built, the reactors could open by 2015.
Opponents hope to make the case in Maryland that despite safety innovations in the construction of nuclear reactors, a new plant would not be safe from a catastrophic accident or terrorist strike, would create evacuation problems and would add to the nuclear waste stored at Calvert Cliffs.
"The question is, is this the best way for Maryland to meet its energy needs?" asked Michael Mariotte of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a Takoma Park-based watchdog group that has joined forces with Maryland PIRG, a consumer advocacy and environmental group, in opposing a third reactor. "Ultimately it's the Maryland ratepayers who are going to end up paying for this thing." The coalition says Maryland should focus more aggressively on promoting energy conservation and wind and solar power as safe, effective alternatives to more nuclear power.
William Johnston III, 70, of Huntingtown plans to request a one-year stay of the project to allow further study of renewable energy options and for more consideration of environmental and safety issues at the coming hearings.
"What happens when Units [reactors] 1 and 2 reach the end of their lives," Johnston asked, "and you have a mausoleum there" containing nuclear waste? "Our great-grandchildren have the burden of this hot stuff sitting there. They have to worry about terrorists and . . . all of this is just for power."
Johnston and the co-authors of the testimony also are concerned over the loss of wildlife habitats, discharges into the air and the bay and the increased traffic associated with the plant's construction and operation, among other issues
But Constellation Energy has huge support in Calvert, where officials and many residents are counting on hundreds of new jobs and $20 million a year in tax revenue. The Board of County Commissioners already has offered 15 years worth of tax breaks to Constellation, valued at $300 million, to build another reactor.
"Calvert County has lived with [the existing] plants at Calvert Cliffs for 30 years," said George Vanderheyden, president and chief executive of UniStar, a Constellation company that has applied for the Maryland license. "They understand nuclear power and are very supportive of it."
"People around these parts talk of the plant as 'our nuclear plant,' " said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert), whose district includes Calvert Cliffs. "We're not going to conserve our way out of our energy problems."