Getting stuck with a pile of radioactive waste was never part of the deal when six Illinois towns, including north suburban Zion, became home to nuclear power plants.
When the Zion plant was built in 1973, the understanding was that by 1998 the federal government would start whisking away the inevitable radioactive waste to a permanent repository where it could safety rest for centuries. But the expected site — Yucca Mountain in Nevada — was mothballed several years ago amid political and scientific battles. Since then, nuclear plants have kept their hazardous waste on site with no idea what will happen in the long run.
As we wait — and wait — for a permanent federal repository, towns such Zion are stuck with the stigma of being nuclear waste dumps, which ravages the local economy. As detailed in a Sun-Times report on Sunday, nobody wants to live next to a nuclear waste dump. People stop buying homes. Businesses fold. Property values, and property taxes, go into meltdown.
But, with a new president and Congress, maybe finally the feds will come to the rescue. They created this mess, really, and it is high time they cleaned it up. President-elect Donald Trump could finally make the tough, politically radioactive, decision about where to store our nation’s spent nuclear waste — and then actually do it.
Even sooner than that, the feds should compensate Zion right now for reneging on the original deal — and be prepared to do so as well for other Illinois towns when their nuclear plants shut down. When the nuke plants came along, every one of these towns was promised that the federal government would remove the radioactive waste when the time came, and it is wrong that they are getting hammered now simply because Congress and the White House have never had the political courage to follow through on that commitment.
U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider, D-Ill., according to his spokesman Steven Kirsch, is pushing bipartisan legislation that was introduced last summer by his predecessor, Bob Dold, to compensate Zion and other towns for their storage of nuclear fuel from closed power plants. Zion would get $15 million a year for seven years.
In addition to federal action, the Illinois General Assembly should consider providing transition funds for communities whose nuclear plants shut down, something the Nuclear Energy Information Service has called for. That would help local officials soften the shock to their budgets.
If the site of the Zion plant could be cleared and redeveloped, as Zion officials expected it would be, the city could put the land to new uses, boosting its economy and generating tax revenue. Instead, the city — founded in 1901 with a layout based on the British flag — has been left in the lurch, and its downtown has nearly as many empty storefronts as it has functioning businesses. Remaining business owners say they are feeling squeezed by declining sales and property taxes that have been raised to offset lost revenue from the nuclear plant, which accounted for about 55 percent of the city’s tax base while it was operating.
If the feds don’t act, towns across Illinois and the country will suffer. Illinois communities that are home to the Clinton and the Quad Cities nuclear plants came close last year to sharing Zion’s fate, averted only by a last-minute deal in the Legislature. But all nuclear plants are scheduled to be decommissioned when their operating licenses terminate. And if natural gas prices remain low and renewable energy becomes competitive, some nuclear plants might close ahead of schedule for economic reasons, as almost happened with the Clinton and Quad Cities plants.
It’s not a small problem. Zion is stuck with about 1,000 tons of extremely hazardous spent nuclear fuel rods. The rods sit inside stainless steel canisters encased in concrete on Lake Michigan’s shoreline, an option that environmentalists consider unacceptably inadequate because the waste is not in containers hardened sufficiently to withstand a terrorist attack or a direct hit by a fuel-laden commercial airliner.
The proper disposal of nuclear waste is the nation’s problem — and solving the problem should be a national priority. One small Chicago suburb should not be punished by a federal government that has has long ducked its responsibilities.
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