The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Counties Eye Nuke Plants, Utilities Eye Govt. Handouts

by Shreema Mehta

With the Bush administration pushing nuclear power as an “alternative energy,” big utilities are looking to revitalize what was recently a dormant industry, and some local governments are keen on the potential industrial influx.

Aug. 29, 2006 – A Maryland county recently offered $300 million in property tax breaks to a nuclear-energy company to build a reactor, in a move environmentalists say reflects a resurgence of the nuclear industry.

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Calvert County officials offered the tax incentives to entice the power company Constellation Energy, which is currently choosing between Calvert and two counties in New York for the site of a new nuclear reactor. If Calvert secures the deal, the company would add a third reactor to the existing Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant.

While some government officials tout nuclear energy as a solution to the growing demand for energy, environmentalists consider it extraordinarily expensive, ecologically harmful and a national security risk. Instead, they are pushing for alternatives.

County officials estimate that adding a new reactor to the company’s Calvert Cliffs location would bring approximately 3,000 construction jobs and 400 permanent positions to the community. They say the expansion would also contribute to the county tax base.

"It virtually changed the face of this county. People who couldn’t find work did," said Linda Vassallo, director of the Calvert County Department of Economic Development, referring to the reactors that arrived in the 1970s. "Given the history of the job, I think they’re going to attempt to hire locally," she said. Officials added in a statement that the expansion would also contribute to the county tax base. They also cited nuclear energy as relatively safe and less polluting compared to other sources.

"The waste is already piling up, and increasing the amount of waste generated is irresponsible. "

But Brad Heavner, executive director of the group Environment Maryland, said the county is misguided in its support for the nuclear industry. His group seeks to stir public opposition to the new plant before Constellation obtains a license from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Heavner predicted the new jobs would go not to state residents but rather to skilled workers brought in from all over the country. He also said adding a nuclear reactor would add waste that could pose a threat to the local environment.

"The waste is already piling up, and increasing the amount of waste generated is irresponsible," Heavner said. According to a report released by Maryland PIRG, 44 tons of radioactive waste are added to storage pools near Calvert Cliffs annually. Currently, the facility holds 923 tons of radioactive waste.

Heavner also argued that "there are much smarter ways to get electricity in the state," such as investing in "clean energy" industries like solar or hydropower, which could also foster job growth.

"It’s time for [the government] to start promoting the next generation of technology," he said, such as upgrading homes and factories to be more energy efficient.

Though efficiency measures alone would not satisfy increases in energy demand, they could have a significant impact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In a study released in July, the Agency found that comprehensive efficiency measures, such as using renewable-energy grids that collect excess generated electricity, or toughening efficiency standards on traffic lights or electrical appliances, could reduce electricity demand as much as 20 percent by 2025.

"It’s time for [the government] to start promoting the next generation of technology."

As Constellation eyes Calvert Cliffs for its proposed reactor site, Environment Maryland plans to canvass and reach out to local neighborhood and environmental groups. "We’ll be talking to citizens in Maryland about the issue and [enabling] a lot of people to participate in the process," Heavner said.

Other states and counties, including Amarillo, Texas and Oswego, New York are also offering subsidies for nuclear plant construction.

On top of state and county handouts, nuclear power companies receive massive federal subsidies. With the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the federal government offers nuclear utilities a tax credit of 1.8 cents per kilowatt-hour for the first eight years of a plant’s production, capped at $125 million annually. The Act also provided financial safety nets for companies facing delays in production, and increases in loans for "alternative energy" industries, which include nuclear reactors.

"The industry got a wish-list given to them by Congress," said Geoffrey Fettus, a staff attorney with the national environmental organization Natural Resources Defense Council. He noted that the federal government not only subsidizes nuclear-reactor construction but also helps companies manage their waste and secure their facilities.

"The nuclear industry is a creature of long-term federal subsidies," Fettus said, adding, "We think the question is, ‘[Why] should you subsidize a mature industry at these astronomical levels when we have better, cheaper, cleaner options?"

Critics point to heavy lobbying on local and federal levels by the nuclear industry.

Critics point to heavy lobbying on local and federal levels by the nuclear industry.

According to campaign finance filings from the Maryland Board of Elections, Constellation, the company Calvert County seeks to attract, has made over $200,000 in political contributions through its Political Action Committee to candidates, parties and business groups in the state, including to the Calvert County Democratic Council.

Though a nuclear reactor has not been licensed for close to 30 years, Boyd said federal lobbying has contributed to recent efforts to promote nuclear power to the public and build more plants. The White House’s 2001 Energy Policy, jumpstarted the development of the industry after years of stagnation. The policy called for expediting license applications by nuclear companies. In 2002, the federal government formed the Nuclear Power 2010 Program, which has the federal government and company collaborate to seek out and develop new nuclear reactor sites.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Shreema Mehta is a staff journalist.

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