Near-meltdown in Japan reignites nuclear debate
Advocates say offshore wind is safer energy alternative for Maryland
ANNAPOLIS As Japan struggles to recover from a devastating earthquake and tsunami last week, the threat of a meltdown at several of the nation's nuclear power plants has critics closer to home calling for a halt on new nuclear energy projects.
That includes the proposed development of a third reactor at Calvert Cliffs in Lusby. Executives of Eléctricité de France, the majority owner of the plant, met with Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) last week to discuss state assistance in financing the approximately $10 billion project.
But in the wake of one of the largest temblors in recorded history, even proponents of nuclear power are advocating a cautious approach.
The United States should "quickly put the brakes on until we can absorb what has happened in Japan as a result of the earthquake and tsunami and then see what more, if anything, we can demand of the new power plants that are coming on line," U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), a nuclear supporter who chairs the Senate's homeland security committee said on the CBS Sunday talk show "Face the Nation."
For now, the first priority should be on helping Japan get back to its feet, said Sue Walitsky, a spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, who is a longtime nuclear advocate.
The confirmed release of radioactive material from the Fukushima Daiichi, located about 135 miles northeast of Tokyo, should be a wake-up call for American politicians and policymakers, said Paul Gunter, director of the Reactor Oversight Project for Beyond Nuclear, an anti-nuclear advocacy group based in Takoma Park.
"What's clear is that the nuclear accidents in Japan have identified that in the event of natural disaster or national crisis, nuclear power is more of a liability than it is an asset," he said.
Others say that's an over-reaction to a tragic incident that would be highly unlikely to occur on the East Coast, close to Calvert Cliffs.
"I would caution people not to make snap judgments," said State House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Dist. 29C) of Lusby, whose district includes Calvert Cliffs. "The crisis in Japan is still occurring, so let's let the crisis be brought under control and be stabilized and then be appropriately evaluated before we rush to judgment."
A third reactor at Calvert Cliffs would produce 1,600 megawatts of power, enough to power about 1.3 million Maryland homes. Currently, there are 104 nuclear reactors operating at 66 power plants in the U.S., and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing applications for 15 more, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Local officials are backing the Calvert Cliffs expansion because it would create 4,000 construction jobs and 400 permanent positions, as well as add to the county's overall tax base.
A spokesman for O'Malley said the governor remains committed to Calvert Cliffs, as well as other alternative energy sources, including offshore wind, which he is strongly backing this legislative session.
"The most risky option we have in terms of securing or generating our electricity is relying on volatile markets overseas," said O'Malley spokesman Shaun Adamec.
U.S. House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer stopped short of calling for a moratorium on nuclear projects, but advised a prudent examination of how to improve safety.
"There is no question that the situation in Japan is very serious and certainly raises concerns for communities with reactors here in the U.S.," Hoyer (D-Dist. 5) of Mechanicsville said in a statement issued by his spokeswoman.
"The U.S. has long required reactors to be designed to withstand weather, seismic and tsunami events, and accompanying power losses, including at reactors like those currently operating at Calvert Cliffs that do not have the same seismic history as Japan."
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission should analyze what is occurring in Japan, identify lessons learned and incorporate them into the design and operation of U.S. nuclear plants, he said.
Meanwhile, offshore wind advocates plan to highlight the safety of wind turbines that are built miles off the coastline at a Senate hearing Tuesday. They also will tout new estimates from the state Public Service Commission that reduces the projected cost to taxpayers and are promoting an amendment drafted by the O'Malley administration that provides further protections by requiring the PSC to only consider offshore wind projects that are comparable in cost to other projects of similar size.
Offshore wind is cleaner and safer than nuclear energy, said Tom Carlson, Maryland campaign director for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
"If a storm knocks one of these things (a wind turbine) down, the worst thing we have is an artificial reef," he said.
But Carlson pointed out that advocates for nuclear and wind don't have to be in competition. "It's not about either-or," he said.
The PSC's cost analysis reduces the potential cost for the development of offshore wind farms to as little as 92 cents per month per residential utility customer, beginning in 2016. The high-end estimate is $3 per month.
But O'Donnell argued that offshore wind alone won't solve the state's long-term energy needs.
"They can't supply the grid," he said. "They can supplement it, but they can't be the baseload of the grid."
Adamec said the governor believes both nuclear and wind are critical to the state's energy future.
"Both sources of power are domestic," he said. "Both are, certainly relative to oil, clean and both also have the advantage of bringing thousands of jobs to the state."