Lawmakers, keep moratorium on new nuclear power plants in Illinois

The claim of benefits of small modular reactors are fantasies. Turning to nuclear energy will mean more radioactive waste along with other problems, and will not help our state fight climate change.

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Steam escaping from Exelon Corp.’s nuclear plant in Byron, Illinois, in the middle of farmland with a barn in the foreground.

This March 2011 file photo shows steam escaping from Exelon Corp.’s nuclear plant in Byron.

AP/Robert Ray

During the fall session, the Legislature is expected to make a decision with enormous implications for renewable energy in Illinois.

Last spring, Gov. J.B. Pritzker wisely vetoed SB76, ostensibly to repeal Illinois’ 1987 nuclear power construction moratorium. In reality, pro-nuclear advocates introduced it promoting “small modular nuclear reactors” (SMNRs) — theoretical, untested “next generation” nuclear power plant designs.

The governor feared the bill would “open the door to the proliferation of large-scale nuclear reactors that are so costly to build that they will cause exorbitant ratepayer-funded bailouts” and provided “no regulatory protections or updates to address the health and safety of Illinois residents ...”

The Legislature will attempt to override the veto, but as always, the devil resides in the details, details largely unknown or ignored by many legislators when they passed SB76.

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They should not make the same mistake twice. Lawmakers should uphold the veto.

Pro-nuclear advocates describe the moratorium as an “arbitrary” and “outdated” “ban” on nuclear power. These claims are totally false. First, it’s a moratorium — a temporary, conditional halt — not a ban, conditioned on the federal government building an environmentally sound permanent disposal facility for the nation’s now-90,000+ tons of dangerous high-level radioactive waste (HLRW) before Illinois will allow construction of new reactors to make more of it.

The feds have yet to meet the legally mandated 1997 date to open a permanent disposal facility, and Illinois consequently has 11,000+ tons of HLRW sitting onsite lacking permanent disposal.

Absent this federal repository, the moratorium is not “outdated.” And since no new reactors have added to Illinois’ HLRW burden, it’s not “arbitrary” — it’s a success.

SB76 was really a Trojan horse. It ignored the reality about nuclear waste. It promoted the construction of small modular reactors, which was explicit in SB76’s introductory language, then inexplicably amended to remove that language; then amended again at the 11th hour, substituting language promoting a totally different kind of reactor. All of this resulted in the governor’s veto.

Now the pro-nuclear faction wants to override the veto. As a precaution they have also introduced SB2591 using the original SB76 language promoting SMNRs.

‘Fantasies’ about fighting climate change

Hoopla about the alleged “benefits” of small modular reactors are currently fantasies, mere nuclear industry marketing promises and wishful thinking because small reactors do not exist yet, and will not be available in commercially meaningful numbers until the mid-2030s, and then only if their proposed designs actually work.

SMNRs have been touted to strengthen local economies, provide job stability, support business and augment the tax base, thus leading to more funding for schools. Yet Illinois is already reaping all of these benefits at existing (and proposed) renewable energy facilities.

Illinois currently provides far more jobs in renewable energy and energy efficiency — a combined 105,591, as of 2021 — than at current nuclear plants — 3,726 as of 2022. The non-existent small modular reactors actually call for fewer operating staff.

Pro-nuclear advocates claim we need more nuclear to fight climate change, a claim challenged by two former Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairs, Gregory Jaczko and Allison Macfarlane, who have stated unequivocally that nuclear energy can’t be a silver bullet for climate change because it cannot replace other forms of power generation quickly enough to sufficiently reduce emissions.

Other worrisome “devils in the details” not receiving Legislature debate include: proposals to build small modular reactors without protective containment buildings; elimination of emergency planning zones around reactors; and exemption from financial liability in case of accidents.

SMNRs are proposed by an industry that can’t build reactors on time, is rife with cost overruns, has recently endured three major nuclear-related corruption scandals and already cannot compete in Illinois’ energy market without needing $3.05 billion in ratepayer guaranteed bailouts.

Small modular reactors will mean more radioactive waste, continued radioactive emissions and accident threats, potentially higher electric rates and more nuclear bailouts. SMNRs are competitors, not complements, to renewable energy, for both market share and transmission grid access. They threaten Illinois’ renewable energy goals.

If the Legislature truly supports safe, renewable energy, it will not override the governor’s veto of SB76; and it will not support more nuclear plants in Illinois’ energy future.

David Kraft is director of the Nuclear Energy Information Service, a nonprofit that advocates for sustainable energy.

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