Energizing the debate

New policies could benefit Maryland's Eastern Shore

From Your House To The White House

Election 2008

October 19, 2008|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,david.nitkin@baltsun.com

From the marshy fringe of the Chesapeake Bay to the flat farms of the Eastern Shore, Marylanders are pondering how to harness energy and reduce damage to their land while getting it.

The discussion has permeated the contest for president, with John McCain and Barack Obama talking of lessening the nation's dependence on foreign oil and minimizing heat-trapping greenhouse gases formed when fossil fuels are burned.

As candidates trade proposals, Marylanders such as Donald Graf, an engineer who has designed nuclear power systems throughout his adult life, and Eric Stocker, who struggles to prevent waste from his Eastern Shore farm from flushing into nearby streams, are attuned. They, like many Americans, are ravenous for a new energy policy that could be part of the agenda for the next administration.

Hanging in the balance are limits on tailpipe emissions and the cost of gas at the pump. The next president's decisions could affect everything from whether Marylanders live next to a nuclear power reactor to how quickly rising sea levels carve away their land.

During his daily commute from the tip of Southern Maryland to an engineering firm in Old Town Alexandria, Va., Graf drives past Constellation Energy's Calvert Cliffs plant in Lusby, passing vacant acreage that could be turned over to one of the nation's first new nuclear power plants in decades.

Calvert Cliffs is one of the places McCain has in mind when he touts the construction of 45 nuclear plants by 2030. Graf would like to see it.

Graf has had no civilian job other than working with nuclear power systems. Three decades ago, he helped fabricate Calvert's current plants.

Graf grew up in the agricultural town of Glassboro, N.J., and attended the University of Pennsylvania on a Navy scholarship that provided tuition, books and $50 a month in spending money. "A great ride," he still calls it, for a family that couldn't afford the "hefty bill" of a big university.

Repaying the Navy with several years of active duty after graduation, he spent much of it as chief engineer on a 300-foot oil-fired destroyer, but switched to nuclear energy when he became a civilian. He joined a company building a trio of nuclear submarines in New Jersey. Later, he helped design a boiling water nuclear power station in Wisconsin.

Graf was at the vanguard of a burgeoning field. Scientists had learned how to harness the power of the atom; it was up to engineers to build the safest and most efficient commercial systems around them.

"Each day was something new," he said. "The bureaucracy had not yet taken effect."

His career would take him to Calvert Cliffs in the 1970s, where, as an employee of a company called Combustion Engineering Inc., he took part in the design, licensing and installation of Calvert Cliff's nuclear steam supply system.

He later moved to BGE, taking on responsibilities from planning for the fuel storage facility to overseeing a huge repair project on one of the major components of the reactor system. He settled in Lusby, on a few acres of land along the Paxtuxent River, close to the bay.

Many of those around him are also strong supporters of nuclear power, which has defined the Calvert landscape for more than 30 years.

Albert W. "Skip" Zahniser, owner of a marina and a former member of the county planning commission, calls Calvert Cliffs "a good neighbor" that is "clean, safe and beneficial to our county."

"The world is not going to fill its need for clean and environmentally friendly energy without pursuing all the many options available," Zahniser said in a letter this year to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in support of a third nuclear reactor at Calvert Cliffs. "Nuclear energy is emissions free when managed safely, less damaging to the environment and the technology is here today."

But support is not universal. Some are concerned about the disposal of spent fuel. Others question tax breaks the plant stands to receive, and whether the location - less than 75 miles from the White House and next to a liquefied natural gas terminal - poses an attractive terror target.

Graf has occasionally voted Democratic in local or state or congressional races. But not for president: He has voted Republican as long as he can remember, and intends to do so again in November.

"Energy ranks very high," as an issue, he says. "I can't rank it any higher." He likes John McCain's philosophy on nuclear plants and calls Obama "wishy washy" on the subject. But overall, McCain is not conservative enough for him; particularly on immigration.

Graf is also concerned about the environment, and has seen firsthand the landscape change along his sliver of the Chesapeake.

"There used to be dry land off my bulkhead every tide. Now it's bone dry only twice a year," he says. "It's more than the water level rising. It's the ground subsiding where I am."

He doesn't want too many of his tax dollars, or the nation's resources, going toward the capture of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

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