A strange switch in a 'green' world

August 12, 2008|By JEAN MARBELLA

It's billed as a clean, "green" source of energy, and most of the citizens who spoke at a recent public hearing voiced their enthusiastic support for it.

Earlier this year, another clean, "green" source of energy similarly was debated at a public hearing, but in that case, an even vaster and more vocal majority rose to denounce it.

Which was the hearing for a proposed nuclear reactor, and which was the hearing for a wind farm?

We're in something of a Bizarro World - the alternate universe in which everyone from Superman to Jerry Seinfeld have found themselves - these days when it comes to our desire to generate more electricity without killing the planet along the way. In this world, it's the once ominous nuclear power plant that has somehow morphed into a cuddly, friend of the Earth, while the seemingly benign wind farm has turned into this dreaded blot on the land - and seascape.

Us love radioactivity! Us hate windmills - and wooden shoes and tulips, too!

The Public Service Commission continues its hearings this week to get public input on a proposal to build a third nuclear reactor at Calvert Cliffs in Southern Maryland. The first hearing, held last Monday, drew a mostly supportive crowd that applauded the proposal for the jobs it would create and the much-needed electricity it would generate - without the greenhouse gas emissions that coal-fired plants contribute to global warming.

It's a remarkable turnaround - really, could even the Mad Men have created such an improved image? - for the once frightening specter that those looming concrete cooling towers once represented.

Maybe nuclear plant fears of the 1970s and 1980s have gone the way of the atomic bomb drills of the 1950s that sent classrooms of kids diving under their desks to practice what to do in case of attack. Was 1979 really that long ago? That was the year of Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, still the nation's worst nuclear plant accident, threatening a meltdown like the one portrayed in the movie The China Syndrome that came out just days earlier. (The title referred to the concept of a meltdown that would bore a hole straight through the planet to China.)

And seven years later, a truly cataclysmic accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union that killed dozens and sickened more gave even more weight to those fears.

Since then, though, time has served to water down nuclear-power anxieties, said Jonathan Levy of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis.

"People used to be more worried about nuclear power because it was new," said Levy, an associate professor of environmental health and risk assessment. "Now, it's wind power that seems to be the new technology while nuclear power has become less new, so some of the concerns over that have dissipated over time."

Oddly enough, wind power, which seems the stuff of gentle Dutch landscapes, now looms as a threat - an aesthetic one to some, and to migrating birds to others. Proposals to build wind farms off the coast of Massachusetts and in the mountains of Western Maryland have drawn fire recently.

"It's almost a classic risk perception issue," Levy said. "The negative impact of wind power is very easy to see - you can see directly what it is doing to your view - while its benefits are more amorphous."

It's not a clear wind-vs.-nukes fight, of course, and each option has its share of both proponents and opponents. But those who favor the third nuclear reactor at Calvert Cliffs can point to the first two that they've lived with all these years, while those who favor wind farms don't have a comparable existing example in their midst. Still, it's years from a resolution, with Constellation Energy's proposal for a new reactor having to get through the state's Public Service Commission and the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission before it could be built.

Meanwhile, while the proposal for a wind farm on state land in Western Maryland died, one that would place turbines off the coast of Delaware drew support from Gov. Martin O'Malley - and the hopes that the plan could be extended south to Maryland, as well.

Concerns remain over how the turbines would affect the vistas from Ocean City and other beaches - strange concerns, I think, given the neon-lit and Big Peckers-type of bars and amusements that already mar our coastline - but surely they would be a small price to pay for the state not going dark in the coming years from a predicted shortage of electricity. It would be pretty hard, or at least expensive, to play minigolf or blend all those icy drinks without some new sources of electricity.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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