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Commentary Energy & Environment

Opinion: State Needs to Investigate New Nuclear Energy Options

Pixabay.com photo by distelAPPArath.

By Bill Temmink

The writer, an environmental activist, is a resident of Joppa.

Maryland Matters published an article and a commentary Jan. 22 on climate mitigation efforts. Both well meaning. Both well researched. Both suggesting mitigation ideas and efforts already underway. Both efforts to be encouraged. Both largely missing the point.

Mitigation is designed to lessen damage, not solve a problem. Maryland cannot mitigate itself out of the climate crisis. Maryland must address the climate situation head on. We used to do things like this. Now, we seem afraid to take on major industrial efforts.

Baltimore’s industrialists powered Maryland’s economy until just after World War II, when the growth of the federal government in Washington, D.C., led to a huge growth in the D.C. metropolitan area. Baltimore was the sixth largest city in the country, with a population of over 900,000. Its growth was spurred by large investments in transportation and energy technologies. Railroads and canals brought coal from the west. Telephone lines connected Baltimore to Washington only eight years after Bell’s invention became known. The port not only controlled trade to and from Europe and Latin America, but also used locally made steel and ships to power our industry. That was an era of creativity and growth.

This should be, as well. The opportunity is here to be taken. We simply need the courage to do so.

At a recent Chesapeake Climate Action Network legislative meeting, the speakers repeatedly suggested that we electrify everything. This is a good slogan and would be a great first step. We need to electrify everything that it is possible to electrify as quickly as possible. But let’s be clear, we need to do this as efficiently, cleanly and cost-effectively as possible. We also need to do much more.

First steps should include looking at numbers. Maryland’s largest source of electricity is imported from the PJM grid. Maryland imports about 250 trillion BTUs of electricity annually. Of the PJM- imported electricity, approximately one-third is produced by coal and another one-third from natural gas. So, if we want to electrify everything with clean power, we need to replace that two-thirds of imported electricity with a cleaner source … about 170 trillion BTUs worth of energy.

So, let’s turn to home-made electricity. Maryland does produce some of its own power. Maryland’s largest source of self-made electric power is nuclear energy at about 160 trillion BTUs. That is roughly the equivalent of the dirty electricity we need to replace. So, an obvious first step would be to double our production of electricity from nuclear power.

That would be a tremendous second step.

Next, we should approximately triple that effort. Remember, we need energy not just for lighting, but for transportation, manufacturing, agriculture, and for home and commercial heating, and appliances. Maryland’s import of electric energy is dwarfed by its import of energy from natural gas and gas for motor fuel. So, tripling our nuclear capacity could get Maryland to net-zero.

Good, but still not good enough.

There are, literally, dozens of new nuclear technologies that have been inspired since 2006 when Alvin Weinberg’s notes on thorium and molten salt nuclear energy technologies were posted on the internet. (At that time, it was still referred to as the World Wide Web). A few of these technologies are already producing electricity. Many are being built and tested. Others are still awaiting design approval. But they are out there awaiting those willing to investigate their potential, weigh any potential risks and move forward.

Maryland, it seems, is largely unwilling to consider this. This needs to change. If Maryland did not have to pay to import most of its power, we would be a much richer state. If we made enough clean energy to export, even better. If we could export the clean nuclear energy technology, we could, essentially, halt greenhouse gas emissions while at the same time further strengthening our economy.

I am not against mitigation. But why mitigate when you can dominate? We could make our economy cleaner and stronger. We could lead the world toward a clean economic renaissance by selecting, developing and deploying the best of the new nuclear energy technologies.

We have a Maryland Commission on Climate Change. They were actively involved in creating a committee on climate mitigation. They need another, larger, effort to develop a clean energy economy. It should have as its goal, not just a clean Maryland economy, but a clean energy exporting economy. To do so will require a serious investigation into the new nuclear energy technologies.

Look at a comparison of French and German power sources and emissions. France’s per capita emissions are one-fifth that of Germany’s. Its energy costs are 41% less than Germany’s. Why? France relies largely on nuclear power. German, trying to avoid nuclear energy, is forced to rely on coal and gas.

France also exports clean electricity to neighboring countries. Exports drive economic growth. Maryland should take the French example and run with it. We should develop, deploy and export these technologies.

The U.S. is behind several countries in developing and deploying new nuclear energy technologies. Maryland is further back still. Maryland has several local corporations developing these technologies. X-Energy, for example, is forced out of state to deploy its technologies, to among other locations, Canada. Maryland is not even considering this.

It is time to stop beating around the bush on climate change. Mitigation is a defensive strategy. It is time to go on offense. It is time to lead.