Plans to build a third reactor at southern Maryland’s Calvert Cliffs were halted — perhaps permanently — on Monday as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission upheld its earlier decision to reject the project.
Based primarily on the fact that the applicant’s parent company is 85 percent owned by the French government, the commission once again denied UniStar Nuclear Operating Service’s proposal to build and operate the reactor at the site near Lusby.
Built in the 1970s, Calvert Cliffs is Maryland’s lone nuclear power plant and the only one in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area.
Unistar’s plan initially was denied last summer by the commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board; that decision was upheld Monday by the agency’s five commissioners.
Critics of the project quickly held up Monday’s decision as a victory in their much larger fight to turn the U.S. away from nuclear power.
The ruling comes just days after Maryland lawmakers approved a plan to build a massive offshore wind farm, leading opponents of nuclear power to cast the state as leading the way on alternative energy.
“Maryland already has moved on. With this decision, Maryland’s future is clear: It will be based on clean renewable power, not dirty, dangerous and expensive nuclear reactors,” said Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, which has long opposed the project.
Critics also pointed out that Monday’s denial came on the second anniversary of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. The meltdown was responsible for pushing nations such as Germany away from nuclear power and toward renewables.
“This decision could not be more timely,” said Paul Gunter, director of the Reactor Oversight Project at Beyond Nuclear, an environmental advocacy group based in Maryland.
The key reason for the NRC denial can be traced to UniStar’s parent, the massive French company Electricite de France, which is 85 percent owned by the French government.
With nuclear power generating more than three quarters of its electricity, France relies on the fuel more than any other nation.
But U.S. law — specifically, the 1954 Atomic Energy Act — prohibits foreign ownership of U.S. nuclear reactors, meaning an American company would have to step up and invest heavily in the project or the NRC would have to rewrite its rules.
The commissioners signaled that they may be willing to do the latter, something UniStar and other nuclear power proponents continue to push for.
“We agree that, with the passage of time since the agency first issued substantive guidance on the foreign ownership [issue] a reassessment is appropriate,” they wrote in their seven-page decision.
The commissioners also said they’ll reconsider the application if and when an American company joins the project.
In the meantime, proponents of nuclear power lauded the NRC for promising to revisit its ownership rules, which haven’t been changed in nearly 60 years.
“Given the global nature of the nuclear world of today, there’s a strong argument to be made for the agency to re-examine its foreign ownership policies. We view the NRC’s directive in that area positively,” said Mitch Singer, a spokesman with the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s leading policy organization.
In a statement, UniStar indicated that it wasn’t ready to give up on the project.
“We look forward to receipt of the revised guidance [from the NRC] on foreign ownership and hope to participate in that process,” the company said.