Cliffs Gives 'Fossil Fuel' New Meaning

With Baltimore Gas & Electric's decision to keep its Calvert Cliffs Power Plant on line well into the 21st century, Calvert County has updated its fossil record. To Chesapeake sharks' teeth, scallop shells and crocodile teeth left over from the Miocene Era over five million years ago, we can now add nuclear power, left over from the World War II era.

Around the country, nuclear power is going obsolete. As safe life spans and licenses expire about the time of the millennium, plant after plant is decommissioning. The black-out is beginning with California and New England, where nuclear power energized the most fervent opponents, but it isn't ending there.

So far, of all companies operating the nation's 104 nuclear power plants, only BG&E has announced its intention to extend its license. Instead of closing down about 2015, Calvert County's 29-year-old twin-reactor plant hopes to operate until 2036. To do so, the utility will have to spend another $300 million to replace steam generators powered by nuclear fission.

Nuclear power has always been costly, and cost is one of the forces driving nukes out of the utility business. Since their heyday in the big-spending '60s, the plants have been sensitive, demanding, and expensive to keep on line. Now, as they age, costs outweigh productivity. "Age-related degradation is one of principle forces driving plants into closure," says Paul Gunter of the Nuclear Information and Research Service in Washington, D.C.

Nuclear power is falling to market economics. It's falling faster now that we have choices.

Back in the old days, nuclear fission was marketed as our only choice. Something of the urgency that gave birth to the atomic age in the 1940s continued to surround the nuclear power industry in the 1960s. In time of war, we made and dropped atomic bombs because victory and defeat were in the balance. In time of peace, we weighed doomsday scenarios of dark, cold cities on the one hand, against cheap, reliable atomic power on the other.

Three and four decades later, we're learning of other choices. As well as fossil fuels or atoms, we can get our energy from the sun or the wind. Today, instead of pie-in-the-sky hippie dreams, these peace-time, renewable alternatives are providing achievable - and affordable - energy.

On positives alone, peace-time energy promises a future worth investing in. Then throw in one more big nuclear negative - the still unsolved problem of how to get rid of the astonishingly deadly and long-lived byproducts of nuclear fission - and the scales weighing our 21st century energy choices really get lopsided.

All this may sound abstract in Calvert County. The County has grown its tax base on Calvert Cliffs' nuclear energy. Many residents draw a paycheck via nuclear energy generated on their Chesapeake Bayfront - though dispatched to fuel industry, switch on computers and light homes far from here.

Yet it's to Calvert County and its residents that nuclear power's dimming energy will be most costly. Whether or not BG&E pursues a longer life for Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant - whether or not, some years down the road, that license is approved - change is coming. Now's the time to think about new jobs for a new generation of Calvert County workers and a new tax base for county services.

Otherwise - and sooner rather than later - expanding choices over the energy that surges through our wires could fossil-ize the quality of life in Calvert County.

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VolumeVI Number 10
March 12-18, 1998
New Bay Times

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