Zion, 25 Years On

November 11, 2008

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In the late 1950s, power companies started to fan out across small-town Illinois, casting for places to build nuclear power plants. Over the next few decades seven towns bit. The lure? The prospect of good jobs and higher property taxes. Few towns thought through what would happen if the plants waved goodbye. But that's a reality Zion, Illinois has had to face. As part of Chicago Matters: Growing Forward, Shawn Allee profiles Zion's history with nuclear power.

The small city of Zion, Illinois, hugs the Lake Michigan beach, just south of the Wisconsin border. It got its start as a religious community, but for much of its history, it's been working class. Industrial. To understand how Zion ended up in the nuclear business you have to know what happened to its industry in the 60s.

IRENE: The factories were getting downgraded.
ALLEE: What were those?
RAY: Well, it was the curtain factory, the cookie factory, chocolates and Zion fig bars.

That's Irene and Ray Zukley. They witnessed first-hand Zion's economic troubles. Things were looking dire, but just then, a company showed up and offered a fix. The utility, Commonweath Edison, said a nuclear power plant would provide new jobs and new property taxes. Of course, that would involve some compromises.

IRENE: We all just felt terrible about it.

ComEd wanted the plant on Zion's beach, so people with property there had to sell. The Zukleys sold their beach cottage.

IRENE: That's why we have this back here…
ALLEE: What are we looking at here?
IRENE: A pool.
ALLEE: Just to be clear, you used the money from the sale of the cottage for this pool that we're looking at through the back here.

ambi: sound of door opening

ALLEE: So, this is your Zion nuclear station legacy?
RAY: Yeah, that's our ‘lake.” Ha ha.
IRENE: Forty years.

But eventually the Zukleys, like most people in Zion, came around to the idea.

IRENE: You know we just wanted progress even though we had to give up our cabin. When you think of having taxes lowered for everybody in Zion, that made you feel, what else would come in and do that?

And ComEd did do that. The nuclear station created millions in property taxes and more than 800 jobs. But it didn't last. The power company shut down the nuclear station in 1998 for economic reasons. Delaine Rogers is Zion's economic development director. She says people didn't see it coming.

ROGERS: You're in a community that has welcomed you. We haven't had an antagonistic relationship. They're not going to close. But they did. And it took 17 million dollars of our local revenues. We were facing losing all our arts and music and sports in our schools. How do you fund police department. How do you fix potholes? It was a very, very scary time.

Zion muddled through, but their relationship with the nuclear plant didn't end here. You see ComEd didn't just pack up the nuclear power station and leave. Ten years later, you can still see the twin cooling towers still poke up from Zion's Lake Michigan beach. When I visit, I pass through empty parking lots and office space. The place looks dead but the plant manager says that's not the case.

SHUSTER: I think a lot of people have a vision of us playing cards or swinging our golf clubs on the beach. I would say we've been extremely busy the entire time.

Ron Schuster and his remaining crew have been removing hazards – things like diesel fuel and electrical equipment. And they're babysitting radioactive material – the spent fuel that still sits inside the plant. The federal government promised it would take away radioactive spent fuel, but it hasn't built a repository yet. So, until then, the current owner, Exelon, is responsible for storing it. Recently, Exelon announced plans to finally decommission or tear-down the plant. Ron Schuster says the buildings would be gone, but spent fuel would stay, on-site, in concrete casks.

SHUSTER: We've got four spots that are on this site that have been looked at. When it comes time to actually put the fuel in dry-cask storage they'll be no doubt about it, it will be a huge structure, about as big as a football field.

He's confident about the plan.

SHUSTER: It's very simple; there is no radiation exposure on the outside of these things.

Things look a little more complicated to Zion residents, though. This spring, when Exelon invited the public to talk about the plan, the company got an earful from people like Chad Anderson.

ANDERSON: The community's not getting any of the economic benefits any more. Why won't they consider putting the spent fuel rods into one of their other operating facilities? Because if they moved it to the Braidwood plant or another plant they have, we would really only have to work with a few counties in Illinois. That would be an Illinois solution for an Illinois problem.

O'NEILL: From a technical perspective, that's something that could possibly be done.

That's Tom O'Neill responding to Anderson. O'Neill is in charge of decommissioning for Exelon.

O'NEILL: We'd have to go through a lengthy regulatory process and we'd also have to a community that would be receptive to receiving the fuel.

O'Neill says that's a political long-shot, so Exelon hasn't even asked the government for permission to move Zion's spent fuel. Lately, Exelon has gone back and forth about the exact timeline for decommissioning. It could take ten years, or it could take decades longer. Either way, Zion is ready to move on. Some are talking about redeveloping the lakefront, maybe with commercial buildings or even condos. But Delaine Rogers says it could be a hard sell. Prospective developers will definitely notice the casks of spent fuel lined up like soldiers.

ROGERS: They're 17 feet high on top of a four-foot pad. It's a substantial structure that's facing you. There will be a security team walking around on site making sure it's protected. That means guards. That means barbed wire. It's not an inviting thing. Instead of something where you're saying, ‘Look at our lakefront,' it's ‘just don't look there.'

That has some in Zion arguing, just restart the nuclear station, but Exelon says that's not an option. Delaine Rogers says it's like Zion is stuck in a complicated relationship with its dormant nuclear power plant.

She won't call it a bad relationship, but she says it sure would be nice to know exactly where it's going, or when it will be over.

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