LUSBY – For Randy Radeackar’s three dogs, the best thing in life is the fenced baseball field near his home in Calvert County.
Twice each day, Radeackar steers his minivan into the wide gravel lot off Trueman Road. One by one, he releases Buddy, Lucky and Queenie from their crates behind the back seat and leads them through the gate to their romping ground.
The park sports a baseball diamond, bleachers and lighted football field on five acres that Baltimore Gas and Electric leased to the county at no cost five years ago. A large wooden sign with fancy gold lettering announces BG&E Field.
It is just one of the benefits Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant has brought to Maryland’s fastest-growing county.
“If the plant weren’t here, we’d be a whole lot poorer,” Radeackar said. “It means we get some extra government services.”
Like Radeackar, most county residents seem to look beyond the risks associated with a hazardous venture like a nuclear power plant. What they see instead in Calvert Cliffs is a good neighbor that provides 1,400 high-paying jobs, a business that brought such a strong boost to the tax base that Calvert went overnight from being one of the poorest counties in the state to the wealthiest.
Taxes on the plant’s 2,500-acre site on the Chesapeake Bay make up about 18 percent of Calvert County’s current budget, said Terry Shannon, director of administration and finance.
When the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave Calvert Cliffs authority to operate until 2036, the first commercial nuclear power plant in the nation to win renewed operating licenses, Calvert County Administrator James Allman called the news “wonderful.”
“It’s hard to come out against it. It’s really hard,” said Dwight Johnsen, a member of the local Sierra Club, which opposed relicensing Calvert Cliffs.
Johnsen, whose St. Mary’s County home is within earshot of the plant’s regularly tested warning sirens, said local residents take challenges to the plant personally.
“As soon as somebody’s livelihood is concerned, all of a sudden it becomes very personal. The whole technical aspect of what’s right and wrong, what’s safe … flies out the window,” he said.
While its fiscal impact is easy to see, the plant itself is all but invisible.
It sits well off Route 4, facing the bay on one side and surrounded by farms and dense woods on all others. The winding, forested parkway that leads from the highway to the plant could easily be mistaken for the entrance to a well-kept state park.
But short, white signs soon appear along the roadside, with words like “personnel safety,” “nuclear safety,” “teamwork” and “integrity” spaced apart like an old-fashioned Burma Shave advertisement.
The general public can tour a visitors’ center made from an old tobacco barn, hike a nature trail and view the plant and bay from a lookout perch. Only approved visitors are allowed through the guarded tollgate-style entrance to the plant buildings.
The sense of security is palpable. To get into the plant, visitors must pass through a half-dozen sets of detection equipment that check for everything from weapons to explosive chemicals. They must also agree to be “patted down” should one of the monitors turn up anything suspicious.
But the tension is easily broken by a quick glance away from the security measures: On a stormy day last week, two bald eagles that nest on the property soared above the security fences, cameras and armed guards. Beyond the white caps of the bay, the wooded western shore of Dorchester County could be seen.
Allman said he cannot remember any community controversy over the plant in the more than 30 years since construction began.
“We have not heard any negative problems at all,” he said. When he mentioned a plant shutdown about 10 years ago due to some equipment problems, he added that BGE “really attacked the problem the way it should have been.”
The NRC fined Calvert Cliffs a total of $231,000 for allowing workers to be exposed to dangerous levels of radiation, in April 1997 and again in April 1998. In response to those incidents, plant officials overhauled work procedures and added extra checks and double-checks to employee routines, a spokesman said.
Coincidentally, those problems came during years in which the county posted budget surpluses. A surplus would have been all but unknown in the county before the arrival of the plant.
Allman said he remembers helping to prepare the county’s $4 million annual budget in 1976, the year after the Unit 1 nuclear reactor began operating and the first year the county reaped the tax rewards.
“We were one of the poorest per capita counties in the state,” he said. “(Calvert Cliffs) instantly made us the richest. Now we’re second, behind Worcester County, which has Ocean City.”
Shannon said the county’s current $118 million budget includes about $21 million in tax revenues from Calvert Cliffs.
She said those revenues will drop next year, following the July 1 deregulation of electric utilities in Maryland. As part of the deregulation, the General Assembly granted tax breaks to utilities like BGE to make it easier for them to compete with companies in other states.
County officials cannot predict what long-term effect deregulation will have on revenues from Calvert Cliffs. But the state has agreed to make payments to the county over the next three years to cushion the blow of the lost taxes. That means the county will actually end up losing about $1 million in revenues next year, Shannon said.
But most people interviewed about the plant preferred to talk about its past or its present, not its future.
Dorothy Burkhead, 72, said her son-in-law “helped build the plant in the late ’60s, and they offered him a job. He’s still there.
“I like the things they do. They have a park, and a swimming pool for families, and a picnic area,” she said.
Shianna Howes, 16, a Prince Frederick resident who waits tables at the International Buffet restaurant on Route 4, said her aunt has worked at Calvert Cliffs “since she was 16. She’s about 38 now.
“Nobody complains about (the plant). She likes the job. She just had a baby, she can work from home and (on-site), and she can pick her own hours,” Howes said.
While nobody complains about the plant, at least some worry.
“You worry about cancer. I think everybody worries,” said a 52-year-old woman who would only identify herself as a lifelong resident of Prince Frederick, about 10 miles north of the plant. “What if some of the gasses escaped?”
But even she believes the risks are worth it, “when you think about the young people here, who get good jobs” at Calvert Cliffs.
“That’s the good benefit,” she said. “I’m sure it’s helped the county.”
As for the possibility of a nuclear accident, most were philosophical.
“I’m like this,” said Sarah Gross, 59, a lifelong Huntingtown resident whose father worked at Calvert Cliffs as a generator repairman. “What’s gonna be, gonna be. If we have an attack (on the plant), I know I’d be gone.”
Radeackar, referring to the terrible traffic problems that have come with explosive growth of Calvert County, has another plan.
“If we did have to evacuate, I’d have to put my boat in the water,” he said, keeping half an eye on his dogs as they zoomed around BG&E Field.