Environmental Commentary by Tom Horton
For too long, many environmentalists have been ambivalent about nuclear energy. It conjures fears: meltdowns, cancers; Chernobyl, Fukushima; overtones of nuclear bombs.
Yet we also know that nuclear power provides 70 percent of all the greenhouse gas-free electrical power in the United States (Hydropower, in which dams block many great rivers like the Susquehanna to fish migration, provides much of the rest). Neither does nuclear energy produce the nitrogen oxides of fossil fuels that are a major Chesapeake pollutant, or the mercury from coal plants that contaminate so much of our seafood.
But lately, it can seem we neednt wrestle with such choices. Theres a better wayclean, green renewable energy like solar or wind, which is getting the push in our region. Marylands legislature just paved the way for big wind farms off our Atlantic coast.
No radiation, no meltdowns, no contribution to water pollution or climate change. Hallelujah.
But not so fast, said the Maryland Conservation Council, a small, all-volunteer organization that led the environmental charge before the first Earth Day in 1970. If we had a Hall of Fame for greenies, MCC would be among the first inducted.
Since 2008, theyve been raising concerns about wind power and showing up unpaid at hearings to support new nuclear reactors from Calvert Cliffs on the Chesapeake, to New Jersey and Lake Ontario.
Were pretty much alone, there are no other (environmental) groups like us, which is unfortunate, said the MCCs science leader, retired Johns Hopkins biochemist Norman Meadow.
Meadows the kind of meticulous researcher who reads the thousands of pages and multi-volume studies on Americas energy options, produced in recent years by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Research Council and other well-credentialed sources.
A daunting, five-year learning curve, is how he described the path hes been on. Ajax Eastman, an MCC official who has been around long enough to have fought the first nuclear reactor at Calvert Cliffs four decades ago, said Meadows conclusions persuaded the group it had to take a stand.
In a nutshell, the MCC says nuclear power is our only real shot at making the rapid and massive reductionmore than 80 percentin carbon dioxide emissions needed to stabilize our changing climate short of disaster.
Its a mature technology, ready now, a key option and could meet a significant portion of the worlds energy needs, according to the National Academy. Wind and solar power, Meadow argues, are far less proven, need backup from fossil fuels when its dark or not windy, and have far greater environmental impacts than nuclear.
He says nuclear power is safer than people think and less expensive, when one factors in a nuclear plants long operating life (60 years versus. 2530 for wind turbines) and ability to operate near capacity (90 percent versus winds 30 percent). It is several times cheaper to prevent a ton of planet-warming CO2 emissions with nuclear power than with wind, a 2007 McKinsey and Co. study said.
The vastly underappreciated impact of renewable energy installations on the natural world is what originally drew the MCC into this fray. Installing just a couple dozen wind turbines on Western Maryland mountain ridges erased 120 acres of forest and moved 400,000 cubic yards of rock and topsoil, in addition to threatening migrating birds and bats.
Proposals on the boards include 330,000 wind turbines across the Great Plains, 46,000 square miles of solar collectors in Southwest deserts and 170,000 wind turbines in the Atlantic.
In contrast, attaining the same power from nuclear energy would require only a handful of plants, taking up a minuscule fraction of the physical space impacted by renewable energy optionseven if one includes mining for the uranium, Meadow said.
He spent his career working with radioactive isotopes and has researched their safety. He cites reports that radiation is a weak carcinogen, whose links to canceroutside of horrendous exposures like the bombs that fell on Japan to end WWIIare extremely difficult to make.
He said we dont yet have all of the answers to the long-term disposal of spent nuclear material, but the 5,000-page environmental impact study of its burial at Yucca Mountain makes it clear the risks are minor, especially compared to the freight train coming at us from climate change.
The nuclear vs. renewables issue is more complex than this column can resolve. But we havent the luxury of ignoring nuclear energy, or of pursuing wind and solar power without more critical analyses of their impacts.
Our energy needs are too huge. Each American burns daily about the same number of calories to live as a sperm whale, or a 40-ton dinosaur, ecologist William R. Catton, Jr. has calculated.
We can and we should reduce those gargantuan appetites; but without using all our options, including nuclear energy, it is unlikely that we will avoid a really bad climate change scenario.
Go to http://mdconservationcouncil.org/ to see more of the MCCs take on this issue.
Tom Horton covered the Bay for 33 years for The Sun in Baltimore, and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.