Changes May Be in Store for Commercial Nuclear Power in Illinois

November 25, 2008

Download Story
Illinois was once the cradle of the commercial nuclear power industry. In fact, utilities built so many reactors the Prairie State is still number one in nuclear generation. In 1987, though, Illinois turned its back on that legacy.  Concern over nuclear waste and high costs led to a ban on any new nuclear plants. Recently, one legislator suggested Illinois repeal that moratorium and consider a nuclear renaissance. As part of our series, Chicago Matters: Growing Forward, Shawn Allee of the Environment Report has the story.

Related:
Local Thoughts on Lifting Ban on Nuclear Power Plant

For a relative newcomer to Illinois politics, representative JoAnn Osmond managed to shake up something that had been dormant for some time – the state's nuclear policy. It all started with a problem in her northeastern Illinois district.

OSMOND: I represent Zion. Zion has a nuclear plant that has been closed for several years.

Last spring, the plant owner, Exelon, announced plans to tear down the Zion nuclear station. That got Osmond thinking.

OSMOND: After a public hearing we went out to dinner and we were sitting and talking to people from Exelon and I asked a question: 'Why are you not taking some of the parts away from Zion and putting them in other nuclear locations?' They said, 'There's a moratorium, we're not building any more nuclear plants in the state of Illinois.'

Osmond says she was stunned. As a politician, she hears plenty of gripes about energy prices. So, Osmond thought, why leave any energy source off the table – even nuclear energy.

OSMOND: I asked staff in Springfield to prepare a bill that would remove the moratorium. Of course they thought I was a little strange because nobody's asked to remove a moratorium in quite some time.

Twenty one years to be precise – that's how long the moratorium's been around. Osmond got her bill together so fast, she blind-sided environmental groups.

DARIN: I got a call that this bill to potentially restart the nuclear power industry in Illinois was being heard in ten minutes in committee and I thought, wow, what a blast from the past.

That's Jack Darin, head of the Illinois Sierra Club. By chance, the very day Osmond introduced her bill in committee, environmental groups happened to be lobbying in Springfield. So, she got a little blind-sided herself

OSMOND: It was standing room only and I thought, 'Oh my goodness, this is really going down fast.' This many people showing up is never in favor of a bill, it's usually to kill a bill.

Both sides made their case. Darin says environmentalists gave a litany of reasons to keep the moratorium.

DARIN: Cost, safety issues, the very big problem of what to do with the nuclear waste. We had our hands full enough trying to figure out how to deal with power plants we already have without adding to the problem of building more.

Osmond's case was more personal.

OSMOND: I don't want my granddaughters to have to buy their electricity from another state I want to be able in 2020, 2030 to be able to plug in our electric cars.

So, who won?

DARIN: It was quite a shock.
OSMOND: It was just unbelievable – it came out of committee, eleven to two.
DARIN: Apparently, we're looking at re-opening that can of worms.

Osmond won, but her victory was not total. This summer, the political leadership put the brakes on her move to repeal the ban. Instead of moving her bill forward, they punted to a statewide nuclear task force which is now studying the proposal. Still, after two decades, Illinois' nuclear moratorium is now open for debate. Veterans of nuclear politics are surprised Osmond got even this far.

KRAFT: It makes absolutely no logical, rational sense in any mode of analysis.

I find Dave Kraft at a coffee shop, where he's just wrapped up an event. Kraft is with the Nuclear Energy Information Service, a clearing-house for all things anti-nuclear.

KRAFT: We have a power glut right now, so there's no need for the power. And we're still further down the road, and still have no solution in sight for radioactive waste that's been produced since 1987.

Kraft says at its core, this is what the moratorium's about: the radioactive spent fuel waste. It's the most dangerous material left over from making nuclear power.

KRAFT: The moratorium simply said, no more new construction of nuclear reactors until the federal government has a demonstrated means of dealing with the waste permanently.

In the 1980s, the federal government said it would take spent fuel and store it in a repository, maybe in Yucca Mountain, Nevada. But that never happened, so spent fuel is just building up in Illinois. That's not just a target for critics of nuclear power – it's a real problem for the industry.

ambi: door swings shut

Bryan Hanson manages the Braidwood nuclear station, 50 miles southwest of Chicago. He leads me to their storage pool. It's square. About half the size of a basketball court. And it has the bluest water I've ever seen.
 
HANSON: This is where we store our spent fuel. It's about thirty feet of water between us and the top of the fuel bundles down there. So you're looking 30 feet in the water and then another 12 feet down below.
ALLEE: If you look into it, it's almost like honeycomb.
HANSON: Honeycomb, looks like an egg crate or honeycomb. Within those cells are fuel bundles that have been used in the reactor, generated energy, and now they're waiting for eventual disposal.

When Braidwood was built the company planned for short-term storage, like this pool.

ALLEE: How long can this stuff stay here, if it has to?
HANSON: Well, it could stay indefinitely, but eventually we would run out of room in our pool, and we'd have to move stuff to dry-cask storage as well.

Concrete casks could hold spent fuel on-site for decades. For critics, that's a problem: Illinois already stores more spent fuel than any other state, and the pile is growing even without new plants. They see this as a growing environmental and security risk, which means the moratorium should stay in place. But Representative JoAnn Osmond sees potential in those piles.

OSMOND: There's gotta be somebody out there that's going to be brilliant enough to figure out how to use the spent fuel.

Actually, some scientists say we can reprocess and reuse nuclear fuel, but the federal government bans it for now. But when it comes to the future of nuclear power in Illinois, economics might trump science. Any new plant in Illinois would cost billions and in this economy, capital is hard to come by. No company has signaled interest in building in the state. Still, Representative Osmond says we have to plan for tomorrow's economy, not today's.

OSMOND: I started the thought process with people. They're now thinking again about energy, they're thinking about nuclear. If my little, naïve 62-year old grandma thought was to just think about the future, then I've got them thinking right now.

In fact, Osmond might have her opponents thinking again very soon. She plans to reintroduce her moratorium repeal next year.

For Chicago Public Radio, I'm Shawn Allee with the Environment Report.