Pritzker sends mixed messages on moratorium of new Illinois nuclear plants

He has taken some heat for vetoing legislation to eliminate the state’s decades-old moratorium on new nuclear power reactors.

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker earlier this month at the Illinois State Fair. Pritzker has taken some heat for vetoing bipartisan legislation to eliminate the state’s decades-old moratorium on new nuclear power reactors. 

Gov. J.B. Pritzker earlier this month at the Illinois State Fair. Pritzker has taken some heat for vetoing bipartisan legislation to eliminate the state’s decades-old moratorium on new nuclear power reactors.

John O’Connor/AP

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has taken some heat for vetoing legislation to eliminate the state’s decades-old moratorium on constructing new nuclear power reactors.

Pritzker was asked about the topic again last week and he said he would sign a version of the bill if it limited new construction to only what are called Small Modular Reactors (SMRs).

“Small Modular Reactors are very beneficial,” Pritzker told reporters, noting that the technology wasn’t yet ready to deploy. “They do seem to work very well, and they do seem to be safe, but they’re going to be several years of testing yet ahead,” he said.

Asked how he could be confident of stopping a veto override, he said many legislators didn’t know that the bill had been changed. “In the last week, things go very quickly,” Pritzker said about the end of spring legislative sessions. “It isn’t known to every legislator that an amendment actually made a major change, not just a minor change.”

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But legislators who shepherded the bill through the General Assembly have taken umbrage with the governor’s claim, noting that nine days passed between the final amendment’s introduction and the House’s floor vote. They also claimed they worked the final bill hard, and members were fully aware of what was going on.

Senate Bill 76 as originally introduced by Sen. Sue Rezin (R-Morris) would’ve opened the door specifically to SMRs. Pritzker indicated last week he would’ve signed something similar to that bill into law had it not been so significantly changed. “I believe strongly that we should bring Small Modular Reactors to Illinois,” he claimed.

But Rezin then amended her bill to delete her previous SMR regulatory language and limited it to merely deleting the state’s longstanding nuclear moratorium language. Rezin’s bill was further amended in the House by Rep. Lance Yednock (D-Ottawa) to add in language requiring that all new nuke plants be an “advanced nuclear reactor” as defined in federal law. The governor claims drafting it that way would open the door to large-scale nuclear power plants, which he opposes. Others hotly dispute this notion, including Rezin.

The problem for Pritzker is that the bill passed the House with a strong, bipartisan majority of 84 votes, which is far more than the 71 needed to override his veto. The Senate, on the other hand, voted 36-14 to concur on Yednock’s amendment, the bare minimum needed for an override.

Rezin told a local radio station last week that House Speaker Chris Welch “has indicated he will not be calling the bill.” Pritzker’s veto message declared he vetoed the bill “at the request of the leadership team of the Speaker of the House and advocates.”

But the House speaker himself has made no such public comments on the legislation, and a Welch spokesperson told me, “We’re going to put this to the caucus before any decision is made for an override.”

“The amendment in the House was in direct response to concerns expressed by the governor, so this really came out of left field for everyone,” Senate Republican Leader John Curran told a reporter last week. Others have claimed the same thing.

But a review of email messages between the bill’s sponsors and others show only one from the governor’s office, and that email was a simple thanks for giving the office a heads up about Yednock’s House amendment.

“Senator Rezin and I spoke with the governor in the spring,” said Yednock. “He said he was supportive of nuclear. I can’t say there was more than that.”

Rezin said she and Yednock met with the governor for half an hour in the spring and the governor said he agreed with the concept of lifting the moratorium to make way for Small Modular Reactors.

Some of the nuclear energy proponents I’ve spoken with do seem to realize that if the governor successfully stops a veto override, their issue may stall out and even disappear.

The governor does appear to be playing both sides on this topic. The House speaker’s staff, after all, was involved with the amendment’s drafting, so proponents believe the governor was looped in all along. Some environmentalists don’t want anything to do with any nuclear restart, small or large. So the governor can appease them with the veto, but still publicly claim to be on the side of a zero-carbon energy source.

If he is bluffing, nuke proponents should call it, run a new bill that makes their intentions clear and put it on his desk.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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