Calvert cliffs

Proposed second nuclear plant is called dangerous and a burden

Nuclear

March 07, 2007|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,Sun reporter

The Maryland Public Interest Research Group launched a grass-roots campaign yesterday to stop Constellation Energy from building a new nuclear reactor on the shores of Chesapeake Bay, saying the technology will burden ratepayers and provide a dangerous solution to the state's energy crisis.

The MaryPIRG consumer advocacy group said it is hoping to head off a heavily subsidized nuclear renaissance that proponents counter is gaining public and political support as the nation struggles to meet growing energy demand while simultaneously curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

Constellation is among roughly a dozen companies hoping to cash in on billions of dollars in federal subsidies promised to aid the initial wave of companies that successfully apply to build the nation's first new nuclear reactors in more than 25 years.

The company is considering constructing a new 1,600-megawatt reactor adjacent to its existing nuclear station at Calvert Cliffs. Constellation's Nine Mile Point Nuclear Station in Scriba, N.Y., also is under consideration for a new reactor.

MaryPIRG's campaign is the first tangible evidence that anti-nuclear activists are reawakening in Maryland as one of the state's largest corporations looks to establish itself as a leader in the nuclear revival.

But the nonprofit, which says conservation and renewable energy sources are a better option, faces growing bipartisan support for nuclear energy in Congress and the White House.

Even some well-known environmentalists have broken ranks, saying nuclear energy may be worthy of a second look in light of the global warming concerns associated with burning coal, oil and natural gas to make electricity.

"When you talk to the people of Maryland and explain the dangers of nuclear power, they get it," said Johanna Neumann, a MaryPIRG policy advocate. Older generations remember Three Mile Island and know deep down that nuclear is unsafe, she said, referring to the 1979 partial meltdown of the atomic power plant near Harrisburg, Pa.

Constellation and other industry officials counter that nuclear energy is a safe, proven technology that accounts for the vast majority of the nation's existing emissions-free electricity production. Conservation and renewable energy sources are only a partial solution to energy worries, they say.

Renewable energy sources account for 2 percent to 3 percent of the nation's energy supply versus 20 percent from nuclear power. And the Department of Energy projects energy demands will grow by 50 percent through 2030.

"I think it's ridiculous for anyone to say we can meet our energy demand through conservation and renewables," said Mitchell Singer, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Neumann said that Maryland could shave nearly a quarter of its energy use over 10 to 20 years with off-the-shelf energy saving measures, making the expansion of Calvert Cliffs unnecessary.

MaryPIRG says the Calvert Cliffs expansion would cost an estimated $2.5 billion to $3 billion to construct and as much as $370 million to decommission decades down the road.

There also is concern that Maryland taxpayers and power customers will end up paying the bill if Constellation tries to shift costs to power customers and whether storage facilities will be available for spent nuclear fuel.

Michael J. Wallace, executive vice president of Constellation Energy, said the company's shareholders would bear most of the risks associated with building the plant.

Federal subsidies contained in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 - which MaryPIRG calculated at $13 billion - are aimed at helping companies offset the higher costs and risks associated with being the first to build.

"The economics are there long-term, but the initial wave of plants in a country that hasn't done this in 25 years will have additional costs and risks, and that's what the incentives are designed to offset," he said.

Constellation will be looking for more than just federal subsidies. Calvert County already has pledged $300 million in tax breaks if the facility is built, and Constellation says it may turn to the state for more financial help to get the project financed.

Wallace said the state help could come in the form of direct aid or an agreement requiring utility customers to buy a portion of the plant's output for a decade or more to ensure the company can recover its costs.

Critics of nuclear power say nothing has changed since huge cost overruns and safety concerns mothballed the industry in the late 1970s.

A reactor project in Finland based on a new design that is identical to the one Constellation proposes to use is over-budget and years behind schedule.

The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that construction errors and regulatory hangups in Finland will force France's Areva SA, one of Constellation's partners in its U.S. nuclear project, to take a $923 million charge.

"Costs to complete and time to complete are issues that are still cropping up with these unproven designs," said Paul Gunter of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, which opposes nuclear power.

Wallace said Constellation would learn from mistakes made in the Finland project, reducing its risks and potential costs if it decides to build.

The company hopes to submit an application to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission later this year, setting in motion a review that could take three years. The company has not committed to building a new nuclear plant, but says a nuclear renaissance is coming. "We truly believe it's only a matter of when and how," Wallace said.

paul.adams@baltsun.com

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