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Nuclear plant moratorium bill heads to veto session fight in Illinois

Clinton Nuclear Power Plant
Daniel Schwen
Flickr via Creative Commons
The Clinton Nuclear Power Station in DeWitt County.

The veto of a law to end a moratorium on new nuclear power plant construction in Illinois sets up a battle in the fall veto session.

In his veto message, Gov. JB Pritzker appears to be saying the bill isn't quite ready for prime time.

“There appears to be real potential for Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), which could, in the future, safely provide power for large energy consuming businesses in areas where their energy needs cannot currently be met,” wrote Pritzker.

But Pritzker said the bill, as written, has vague definitions, including an overly broad definition of the advanced reactor that will open the door to more large-scale plants — plants that cost so much they'll eventually need a state bailout to keep in operation.

Republican State Rep. Dan Calkins of Decatur sits on two energy committees in the House. Calkins supported ending the moratorium and said he thinks that's a false argument.

“No one is going to build another Clinton (Nuclear Power Station) anywhere. Technology has changed,” said Caulkins.

Anti-nuke groups such as the Nuclear Energy Information Service (NEIS) disagree.

“We look at it as a Trojan horse by the pro-nuclear advocates in the legislature service,” said NEIS director David Kraft, who noted a pro nuclear lawmaker muddied the water late in the spring session by changing carefully negotiated language in the bill from "compact" nuclear to "advanced" reactor.

Pritzker also said the measure lacks language to protect the health and safety of people who would live and work near the reactors. Caulkins scoffed at that.

“I live 35 miles south of the nuclear power plant in Clinton. I don't fear that. No one does. That's nonsense,” he said, adding said compact reactors already have been proven to be safe.

“We put nuclear power plants on aircraft carriers and destroyers, ships and submarines. Why can't we do the same thing in Bloomington or Champaign or Decatur to power our factories in our communities at low cost,” said Caulkins.

Pritzker said he wants future legislation to include standards reviewed by experts in the field, or by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The original intent of the moratorium, established in the 1980s, was to halt new plants until the federal government comes up with a permanent nuclear waste repository. That still hasn't happened. Caulkins waved that aside, too.

“I believe that's a false argument. We believed it in the House, in the Senate when we passed that bill. That's not the issue anymore,” he said.

Some spent fuel rods are stored at reactor sites, others are in licensed temporary storage facilities. Caulkins said the lack of permanent storage shouldn't remain a hurdle to new plants.

“They're safe and monitored. We've never had a problem with any of these encapsulated spent rods. They're stored, waiting for a time when they can be safely stored someplace or repurposed,” said Caulkins.

NEIS' Kraft said spent fuel is like any other hazardous substance. It may be true there haven't been problems in Illinois, but there are reports of stockpiles of spent nuclear fuel casks leaking in other states.

“It's safe as long as it's safe, and when it stops being safe, you got a problem,” said Kraft, adding storage is a growing issue not a fading one.

There already are 11,000 tons of radioactive waste fuel in the state. If existing power stations like the Clinton reactor get approval for their applications to extend their operating license period, Kraft said they will produce another 11,000 tons. Any future compact plants would generate other waste, all without the federal government meeting its storage obligation.

An advantage of nuclear-generated electricity is it's on even overnight, feeding power into the grid. Solar and wind installations typically are not. Caulkins said renewables won't keep the electric grid stable as coal and gas plants close, especially given rising demand for electric vehicles and electric stoves.

“We have to acknowledge that if we want to satisfy our needs for electricity, power, in this state, we are not going to get it from solar panels and windmills,” said Caulkins.

Ameran is even talking about another big high-powered electric transmission line project to connect Illinois to other states, he noted.

“We’re going to spend over $1 billion dollars in the next five years, building out, improving, and putting in new electric lines in Illinois to connect us to Iowa, Missouri and Indiana so that they can safely send more electricity without melting our grid,” said Caulkins.

Kraft called that argument specious, arguing Illinois will need those high-power transmission lines no matter what happens.

“We need to have a qualitatively different grid moving forward. It can't just be the big spider web power lines that are crisscrossing farmlands. Now, we also have to look at how we can do things more regionally. Even in terms of municipalities that overlap,” said Kraft.

He noted a huge outage in the state of Texas is an example of what happens when a grid is isolated and there are no options to wheel power from one part of the country to another. Renewable energy sources, he said, are much better suited for that new model grid envisioned in the 2021 Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA) than nuclear power plants.

“So, you tell me who is more capable of providing electrons right now? The wind and solar people who can get facilities online every two years between now and 2030, or the nuclear industry, which won't even have this stuff theoretically built until the end of this decade,” said Kraft.

Pritzker said he supports so-called modular reactors, but he wants construction and planning to take place in coordination with the feds.

Republican State Sen. Sue Rezin of Morris was the primary sponsor of the legislation (SB 76) the governor vetoed. Rezin has announced she will file paperwork to attempt to override Pritzker’s action. The measure passed in both the House and Senate with margins large enough to do that.

But interest groups diverge widely. Labor unions have supported ending the moratorium. So does Climate Jobs Illinois, the Illinois Municipal League, the Illinois Manufacturers Association, and the Illinois Farm Bureau. They all liked the idea of the jobs new nuclear plants could create.

The bill was opposed by the Sierra Club, the Illinois Environmental Council, the Environmental Law and Policy Center, the Eco Justice Collaborative, Greenpeace, and the Central Illinois Healthy Community Alliance.

It remains unclear whether enough Democrats will again join with Republicans to pass the measure.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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