Last night, Heritage Research Fellow Jack Spencer and I drove down to Solomons Island, home of Calvert Cliffs’ 2 nuclear reactor stations – where Constellation Energy is proposing to build a third. It was the third of three hearings held by Maryland’s public service commission in which elected officials and the general public had their chance to voice support or concern about adding a 1600MW reactor – the equivalent of the power produced by the two existing reactors.
Of the 25 people we heard speak, 21 favored building a third reactor while 4 opposed. It should be noted that we only stayed from 7-10 and the hearing finished at 11. More anti-nuclear activists could have been waiting for their turn to speak, but out of the 150 people attending the hearing, I’d guess that for every one person opposed to building a new reactor, there were 10 supporting it.
Those advocating new build included elected officials, operators and engineers at the existing Calvert Cliffs plants, and ordinary, interested citizens of the county. One particularly interesting story came from Bobby Swann, a lifelong resident of Calvert Cliffs and adamant supporter of the third reactor. Retired now, Swann recalled living in the area when electricity wasn’t present and outhouses were more common than light switches. He reminded those in the audience of the comfort and dramatic increase in prosperity electricity brought to the community. He concluded by saying it was a privilege to have the two existing reactors at Calvert Cliffs provide the community with safe, clean and affordable energy, and it’d be a shame not to commence building a third. (He also mentioned that since he’s retired, he no longer wears socks. I’m not sure where that fits in, but I think it’s worth mentioning.)
The opposition brought the same misperceptions about nuclear energy to the podium that anti-nuclear activists have been arguing for years. Chief among these arguments were that there is a safety and security problem, that nuclear is actually bad for the environment, and that the country should focus on wind, solar and other renewable energy sources rather than nuclear. I’ll address these three briefly.
Safety & Security. The primary reasons the minority opposition posited for nuclear energy being a safety and security threat are based on pure misconception and ignorance. Two myths that need dispelling are: Nuclear power releases dangerous amounts of radiation into the atmosphere, and there is no solution to the problem of nuclear waste.
As for radiation, by exploiting public fears of anything radioactive and not educating the public about the true nature of radiation and radiation exposure, anti-nuclear extremists can easily portray any radioactive emissions as a reason to stop nuclear power. However, when radiation is put into the proper context, the safety of nuclear power plants is clear.
Nuclear power plants do emit some radiation, but the amounts are environmentally insignificant and pose no threat. These emissions fall well below the legal safety limit sanctioned by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
Waste storage is one of the biggest impediments to an expansion of nuclear power in the public’s mind, and it was certainly echoed at this townhall meeting last night. We do have options for nuclear waste. Spent nuclear fuel can be removed from the reactor, reprocessed to separate unused fuel, and then used again. The remaining waste could then be placed in either interim or long-term storage, such as in the Yucca Mountain repository. For a more comprehensive answer of what nuclear waste actually is and how the problem can be resolved in the U.S., read this.
There were also general inquiries about evacuation procedures, which the NRC details here. Even though no one was even injured, another concern was the possibility of another Three Mile Island. One speaker said it extraordinarily well by saying that comparing all nuclear reactors to TMI is like comparing all cruise ships to the Titanic. Accidents can still happen but a lot has changed – the probabilities are much, much lower.
Bad for the Environment? There is sentiment from the anti-nuclear extremists that nuclear energy makes global warming worse because plants are built with fossil fuel and they emit too much heat. As we’ve said before, this is basically a witch-hunt. Whether the activists like it or not, the world runs on fossil fuel. Until the nation changes its energy profile–which can be done with nuclear energy–almost any activity, even building windmills, will result in CO2 emissions.
The United States has not built a new commercial nuclear reactor in over 30 years, but the 104 plants operating today prevented the release of 681.9 million metric tons of CO2 in 2005, which is comparable to taking 96% of cars off the roads. If CO2 is the problem, emissions-free nuclear power must be part of the solution.
Wind, Solar & Ethanol too! A bulk of the anti-nuclear agenda was promoting wind, solar and ethanol as a replacement for nuclear energy – not a complement. These were some of the most egregious arguments of the night. First, no one suggested it’s a zero sum game; just because we increase our nuclear fleet doesn’t mean we won’t need more energy. As far as I can tell, we’re going to be needing energy for a long time. So, if wind, solar and other renewable fuel sources are economically viable, so be it. It’s true, the costs of building a nuclear plant have been increasing, but wind and solar are having similar issues.
The biggest misconception of last night, in my opinion, was the thought that wind and solar are going to solve all our energy problems. According to the Energy Information Agency (EIA) in 2006 wind accounted for 4% of our energy supply and solar accounted for 1%. But this is what really gets me going. People act like wind, solar and ethanol are some new phenomenon that has just been developed in the past few years. In reality, renewable energy sources have been receiving subsidies and tax credits since the ‘70s. The real problem is they can’t compete in the market with other sources of energy, even with these federal handouts.
Now I’m not Nostradamus and I’m not pretending to be; wind and solar could very well be the future of America’s energy profile. But I do know this: It’s not feasible right now and we need all the supply of energy we can get, especially a CO2-free supply such as nuclear.
Overall, it’s encouraging to know that the majority of the town, including the elected officials, recognizes the benefits a third reactor will bring to the community. Keep your eye out for updates.