Power alert: Be wary of lifting moratorium on new Illinois nuclear plants

Advocates of ending the moratorium have said they want to make it possible to build small power nuclear power plants in the state.

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The Clinton Power Station is seen in downstate Clinton in 2016.

The Clinton Power Station is seen in downstate Clinton in 2016.

John Dixon/The News-Gazette via AP

Illinois should move carefully before repealing its three-decade-old moratorium on new nuclear power plants.

On Tuesday, the House Senate Energy and Public Utilities Committee will discuss an amended version of a bill passed by the state Senate to lift the moratorium and allow “advanced nuclear reactors.” Advocates of ending the moratorium have said they want to make it possible to build small power nuclear power plants in the state, which would take advantage of new federal spending, although the technology to make that possible is years in the future. And it’s not clear how the “advanced nuclear reactors” in the bill would differ from small modular ones.

Editorial

Editorial

Meanwhile, Illinois still faces the problem that led to the moratorium in the first place: There is no long-term storage facility to store nuclear waste, which can go on emitting hazardous radiation for tens of thousands of years.

As envisioned, small modular nuclear power plants would have about a third of the generating capacity of traditional nuclear reactors. Their modular design would allow them to be factory assembled, saving money and allowing them to be constructed on sites too small for traditional reactors. U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry has said small modular reactors can be a tool to fight against climate change.

But some environmentalists and stakeholders are wary. “What’s really at play here is the attempt to resurrect the moribund and uneconomic nuclear industry,” said David Kraft, director of the Nuclear Energy Information Service, a nuclear watchdog. “But most fundamentally and important, we need an overhaul of the transmission grid, because you could have a million reactors or you could have a million wind turbines, but if you can’t connect power to the customer, they are worthless.”

Illinois environmentalists have accepted subsidies for existing nuclear energy in both the Future Energy Jobs Act and the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act as a way to keep the lights on during the transition to renewable energy. Zero-carbon nuclear plants provide about half of Illinois’ energy, and more electric power will be needed as the state transitions to electric vehicles and an emphasis on appliances, heating and other uses that don’t burn fossil fuels.

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But small nuclear plants are a dubious answer. Will the nuclear waste they generate lead to vulnerable storage sites or risky transportation of spent fuel? Global energy prices are higher now, but if they go back down, will smaller reactors be in line for the subsidies larger ones got? Why focus on them when they won’t be built in time to meet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2030 deadline to halve carbon emissions?

Illinois needs to focus on achieving its goal of transitioning to renewable energy. The state must ensure the idea of new nuclear plants does not divert it from that mission.

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