Exelon Generation announced Thursday morning that it intends to shut down two of its nuclear power plants located in northern Illinois next year.
The plants, located in Morris and Byron, have been losing money for the company — a subsidiary of Exelon — for years. And the company’s announcement serves as an escalation of the game of political chess as it has put pressure on Illinois state lawmakers and Gov. JB Pritzker to save the plants or risk seeing the loss of hundreds of jobs.
But even with the dramatic increase in tension, Exelon CEO Chris Crane’s statement appeared to leave room for negotiation about the fate of the plants with state officials.
“We recognize this comes as many of our communities are still recovering from the economic and public health impacts of the pandemic, and we will continue our dialogue with policymakers on ways to prevent these closures,” Crane said.
Just last week, Pritzker put the company in check with a release of his guiding principles as lawmakers restart negotiations on an energy omnibus bill in Springfield. One key element Pritzker’s administration focused on in his 13-page memo is a demand that Exelon disclose more financial information showing why their nuclear plants are in the red.
“I would say they start with an uphill battle with this administration for the idea that we are going to toss billions of dollars at them with no strings attached,” said Christian Mitchell, Pritzker’s deputy governor and point person on utility matters. “I don’t see a version of the world where that happens.”
In commenting on Exelon Generation’s announcement, Pritzker did not blink.
“We have seen these threats before, and this time Exelon’s threats will need to be backed up by a thorough and transparent review of their finances – including why the profits of the company as a whole cannot cover alleged operating losses at a few plants,” Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh wrote.
Abe Scarr, director of the consumer watchdog group Illinois PIRG, piled on, accusing Exelon of using the threat of nuclear power plant closures to hold talks with lawmakers hostage.
“Any additional support for Exelon’s aging, expensive power plants must come within a comprehensive plan to transition Illinois to 100% renewable energy, including firm closure dates for nuclear power plants,” Scarr said.
Exelon’s lobbying campaign has been simmering for months, with Crane frequently addressing the issue in the company’s quarterly earnings calls and threatening that “the clock is ticking.”
His announcement that two plants are facing closure appeared to have its intended effect, with public officials representing the regions around those plants warning of the dire consequences if the state doesn’t intervene.
“It’s truly unfortunate that Exelon has announced two plant closures during the middle of a pandemic. The negative economic impact of these closures cannot be understated,” State Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Frankfort, wrote.
“We must do everything we can to ensure that this facility continues to operate to preserve jobs for the hundreds of people employed by this facility and the many local businesses they support in their communities,” State Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, said, citing concerns of losing more than 800 jobs.
Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, offered to investigate legislative alternatives to shutting the plants down.
“Independent market monitors believe these plants can be profitable,” Harmon said in an emailed statement. “I intend to look into legislative options including requiring these plants be put up for sale before they can be shuttered. We owe it to these workers and communities to see if someone else can successfully run these assets.”
U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Channahon, took a different tact, blaming the fate of the failing nuclear plants on the recent corruption probe into the lobbying practices of Commonwealth Edison, a different Exelon subsidiary.
Last month, federal prosecutors charged ComEd with bribery, agreeing to defer prosecution if the company paid a $200 million penalty. The case ties ComEd to Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, whom federal investigators identified as “Public Official A.” Investigators said Madigan benefited from jobs and contracts improperly served up by the utility in exchange for favorable treatment of its legislative wish list.
“They put millions of dollars into their own pockets by hiking up prices on Illinois taxpayers, and throwing our nuclear power plants into the crosshairs of their backroom deals,” Kinzinger stated. “The Byron and Dresden nuclear power plants are the latest casualties of the self-serving policies coming from Democrat-led Springfield, and it’s long-past time for a change.”Tony Arnold covers state politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.