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).
And, nuclear energy does not contribute to the the nitrogen oxides of fossil fuels— a major Chesapeake pollutant — or the mercury produced by coal plants that contaminate so much of our seafood.
But lately, it can seem we needn't wrestle with such choices. There's a better way — clean, green renewable energy like solar or wind, which is getting the push in our region. Maryland's 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, says 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, they've 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.
"We're pretty much alone, there are no other (environmental) groups like us, which is unfortunate," said the MCC's science leader, Norman Meadow, a retired Johns Hopkins biochemist.
Meadow's the kind of meticulous researcher who reads the thousands of pages and multi-volume studies of U.S. 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 he's 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 Meadow's 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 reduction — more than 80 percent — in carbon dioxide emissions needed to stabilize our changing climate.
It's a mature technology, ready now, a "key option" and "could meet a significant portion of the world's energy needs," according to the National Academy. Wind and solar power, Meadow argues, are far less proven, need backup from fossil fuels when it's 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 plant's long operating life (60 years versus 25–30 for wind turbines) and ability to operate near capacity (90 percent versus wind's 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 underestimated 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 options — even if one includes mining for the uranium, Meadow said.
He spent his career working with radioactive isotopes and has researched their safety. He says that state radiation is a "weak carcinogen," whose links to cancer — outside of horrendous exposures like the bombs that fell on Japan to end World War II —are extremely difficult to make.
He said that we don't 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 versus renewables issue is more complex than this column can resolve. But we haven't 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 daily burns about the same number of calories 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 of our options, including nuclear energy, it is unlikely that we will avoid a really bad climate change scenario.
Go to mdconservationcouncil.org to see more of the MCC's take on this issue.