Gone fission

August 10, 2006

Calvert County is Maryland's fastest growing county and has a median household income almost $20,000 higher than the state average. So does it really need to throw $300 million at Constellation Energy Group to entice the big corporation to build another nuclear reactor at Calvert Cliffs? Is the county that desperate for development that it has to give away so much tax money to a company that made more than $600 million in net income last year?

The answer, say the county's economic development officials, is that it's not a matter of desperation but of striking a prudent bargain - and they have a good point. The county commissioners voted Tuesday to give Constellation a 50 percent property tax break over 15 years - if a new reactor goes on line - because without such an incentive the company would build a plant elsewhere instead. This way, at least, the county gets $20 million in new annual revenue. "Zero or $20 million? I like $20 million," says Danita Boonchaisri, an economic development specialist with the county.

Constellation, along with a French company, hopes to build one or more reactors in this country, and although construction wouldn't start until 2014 it has already ordered some components. The company is talking to local officials at a plant it owns in upstate New York about incentives, and George Vanderheyden, head of the joint venture, says it is also considering three other sites. A reactor would be a $2 billion investment, and bring 400 jobs; he says communities across the country are eager to land one. The competition to offer incentives isn't entirely healthy, but Calvert's choice is to play along or watch from the sidelines.

Nuclear power is understandably getting a second look. A major unresolved problem is the disposal of nuclear waste, an issue that should be addressed before any decision to go forward with a new reactor is made - probably three to four years down the road. In the interim, Calvert County should also fully weigh the financial deal it has offered Constellation. At first glance, it looks like a smart bargain; a second and third glance could do no harm.

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