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To combat climate change, we must invest in nuclear energy

Nuclear power once seemed like science fiction, but Illinoisans made it a reality. If we want to safeguard the planet for our children and grandchildren, there are few tools as powerful as nuclear.

This June 2, 2016 file photo shows Exelon Corporation’s Clinton Power Station in Clinton, Illinois.
This June 2, 2016 file photo shows Exelon Corporation’s Clinton Power Station in Clinton, Illinois. We must invest in nuclear energy, the largest source of carbon-free power. Sen. Dick Durbin writes.
John Dixon, AP Photos

Illinois depends on nuclear power. In fact, roughly 50 percent of our electricity — the most of any state — comes from nuclear plants. Nuclear energy generation emits no carbon into the atmosphere and for millions of Illinoisans that means the lights stay on without contributing to climate change.

If we want to stave off the worst impacts of the climate crisis, then we must ensure the nuclear fleet remains safe and economical, and that we manage it responsibly.

As we saw at the climate conference in Glasgow, the world is newly committed to carbon- free power. President Joe Biden set the goal of a carbon-free electricity sector by 2035, and Illinois has set a similar goal for 2045. These goals are ambitious, yet achievable. But only if we are willing to invest responsibly in what is already the largest source of carbon-free power in America: nuclear energy.

When Gov. J. B. Pritzker signed the Clean Energy Jobs Act in September, he signaled that Illinois was prepared to lead the fight against climate change, and that nuclear energy would be a key tool in our arsenal. The bill includes more than $690 million to upgrade and support Illinois’ nuclear fleet as it continues to provide affordable, zero-carbon power and tens of thousands of jobs.

And with passage of the INVEST in America Act, Congress provided $6 billion to further assist nuclear plants at risk of closure throughout the country. These bills will guide the U.S. on the path to de-carbonization while we build out renewable energy and develop a more sustainable economy.

But our work remains. Congress must now pass the Build Back Better Act in order to help the nuclear fleet remain economical and support the growth of renewable energy sources until we meet our climate goals.

Act responsibly on storing nuclear waste

If we want to reap the rewards of this powerful source of carbon-free energy, we must do so responsibly. It is past time for Congress to step up and develop a comprehensive, consent-based plan to store our nuclear waste. In the meantime, we must support communities already tasked with storing spent fuel, especially those impacted economically by the closure of nuclear plants.

Illinois has led the way on nuclear. In 1942, the world’s first nuclear reactor was constructed on a squash court beneath the University of Chicago’s football field. Today, you can look to Argonne National Laboratory or the University of Illinois, where brilliant Illinoisans work at the cutting edge of cleaner, safer, and more efficient nuclear energy.

Nuclear power once seemed like science fiction, but Illinoisans made it a reality. At times, the threat of climate change can feel similarly insurmountable, but if we want to safeguard the planet for our children and grandchildren, there are few tools as powerful as nuclear and no state better suited to lead than Illinois.

Sen. Dick Durbin is a Democrat from Illinois. Follow him on Twitter @SenatorDurbin

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