For decades, state and federal policymakers have led efforts to reduce the public health threat of pollution. Thanks to many of those efforts, we now regulate and monitor emissions and toxic pollutants that pose a risk to public health – and the air we breathe today is becoming cleaner and safer. Even so, America’s air quality crisis is still responsible for around 100,000 premature deaths each year (more than traffic accidents and homicides combined) and costs the United States $1 trillion per year.
In April, the American Lung Association (ALA) released its annual “State of the Air” report, revealing that 40 percent of Americans—more than 135 million people—live in communities with unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollution. Unfortunately, this includes many Marylanders.
While Maryland has made progress in its overall air quality, two regions were included in ALA’s 2021 list of the top 25 most polluted cities by ozone: Philadelphia-Reading-Camden (#21) which includes northeastern Maryland’s Cecil County and Washington-Baltimore-Arlington (#22). Of the 24 jurisdictions in Maryland, three managed a C grade when it comes to high ozone days, one received a D and six scored an F.
In order to move the needle, it is crucial that states like Maryland both support the development of new, clean electricity technologies and preserve the zero-emissions electricity they have. The existing U.S. nuclear fleet provides at least 80 percent of Maryland’s zero-emissions electricity and more than half of the entire nation’s. That’s an enormous amount of clean electricity that cannot be replaced easily or quickly. In fact, in states where nuclear plants retired prematurely, they were substantially replaced with coal or natural gas, which has significantly increased carbon emissions that contribute to climate change and air pollutants that are dangerous for public health.
The ALA’s study also found that not all communities face the same burden of living with unhealthy air. People of color are over three times more likely than white people to be living in heavily polluted areas. If Maryland does not preserve and expand the zero-emissions energy it has, communities that have historically borne the worst effects of climate change and air pollution will most certainly suffer the health effects of new coal or natural gas production in the state. It is important that Maryland’s climate policies do not come at the expense of communities of color and those burdened by structural inequities.
Right now, Maryland has two significant advantages: existing nuclear capacity and the development of advanced nuclear reactors. Nuclear generation produces clean electricity that avoids harmful particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, heavy metals, and carbon dioxide emissions associated with burning fossil fuels. Soon, a complement of advanced reactors can also generate reliable, zero-emission electricity, and they are scalable to produce large quantities of electricity from a minimal footprint.
Maryland’s current nuclear generation provides a critical foundation for achieving climate and public health goals. It prevents backsliding on emissions and air pollution until the commercialization of the next generation of nuclear reactors and other technologies can build upon that foundation. Leaders in the state should take reasonable steps to ensure Maryland’s most powerful tool – carbon-free nuclear energy – continues to be available to keep Maryland on track to cost effectively meet the goals of the Clean Energy Jobs Act, which aims to achieve 100 percent clean power by 2040.
We’ve seen time and again what happens to air pollution when existing nuclear generation is replaced too soon. As a member of the Nuclear Powers Maryland coalition, C2ES feels strongly that protecting Marylanders’ health goes hand in hand with embracing power sources like nuclear energy that don't release harmful pollution or carbon emissions into the air we breathe. Preserving existing U.S. nuclear reactors, along with the development of other zero emitting sources like solar and offshore wind, is critical to ensuring we are protecting the health of all our communities as we transition to a low-carbon future.
Bob Perciasepe is the president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions and former deputy administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Maryland Secretary of the Environment.
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