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The nuclear option [Commentary]

Maryland is failing to deal squarely with the problem of carbon emissions from electricity production. Given growing public concern about climate change, a fundamental change in our energy policy should be to reduce the burning of fossil fuels and pursue the development of emission-free nuclear power.

That will take time and resources, with far greater emphasis on developing a diverse mix of low-carbon energy sources. Revising Maryland's renewable electricity standard to include nuclear power would provide a good beginning, since it would recognize the importance of the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant in meeting the Environmental Protection Agency's requirement to curb greenhouse gases from electricity generation by 36.5 percent by 2030. That goal cannot be met without nuclear power.

Maryland obtains slightly more than a third of its electricity from the Calvert Cliffs plant. Yet the state's renewable electricity standard — which was enacted a decade ago and mandates the use of solar and wind energy, among other renewable sources — omits nuclear power. Although the Calvert Cliffs plant has a conventional light-water reactor, there are designs available for advanced reactors that produce more fuel than they consume and therefore should be classified as a renewable energy source. Of these designs, the most promising is for a fast neutron reactor, and should be pursued. Failing to recognize the environmental and economic value of advanced nuclear power is nonsensical.

The renewable electricity mandate requires Maryland to get 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2022, but ramping up solar and wind power that quickly won't be easy or cost effective. U.S. nuclear plants, on average, are producing power more than 90 percent of the time, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). By contrast, wind turbines operate about 35 percent of the time, and solar energy systems, 27 percent. Thus, Maryland currently gets less than 3 percent of its electricity from wind and solar energy.

Without nuclear power, Maryland will not have enough baseload capacity that is needed to maintain the reliability of the electric grid. And the state's air quality would decline sharply. EIA reports that the Calvert Cliffs plant prevents the annual emission of more than 12 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and 41,047 tons of sulfur dioxide, which forms acid rain, and 12,821 tons of smog-producing nitrogen oxide. The Calvert Cliffs plant also avoids airborne emissions of mercury and other particulates.

Consumers benefit from nuclear power. Although the cost of building a new nuclear plant is high, the cost of operating a plant is low because nuclear fuel is relatively cheap. With an average production cost of 2.14 cents per kilowatt-hour, nuclear energy is less expensive to operate than coal or natural gas. Over the life of a plant, consumers could save enormous sums of money.

Five large nuclear plants are under construction in the United States — two each in Georgia and South Carolina and one in Tennessee. Altogether, 72 nuclear plants are being built worldwide, and more than 400 are planned or proposed. In the U.S. alone, the latest projections call for an additional 351 gigawatts of electricity generating capacity by 2040. That's the equivalent of more than 300 large power plants. Nuclear power will need to play a key role in America's energy future if we hope to meet the growing demand for electricity and replace coal plants to meet the EPA carbon standard.

An energy expert isn't needed to tell us that Maryland needs more electric power to flex its economic muscle. That's true even if we continue to make impressive gains in energy efficiency. Energy is the lifeblood of our state's economy. We need to redouble our efforts to develop a broad spectrum of energy technologies that are practical and can contribute to reducing greenhouse gases.

Dan Ervin is a professor of finance at Salisbury University; this commentary does not represent the official position or views of Salisbury University. His email is

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