Pritzker sidelines Illinois in Biden’s long nuclear play

Alan Medsker

On May 31, Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm called for the construction of hundreds of large nuclear reactors in a speech at the Vogtle nuclear power plant in Georgia. With the completion of two new AP1000 reactors, Vogtle 3 and 4, the site is now the largest source of clean energy in America.

“We need two hundred of these by 2050. Two down, one hundred and ninety-eight to go,” Granholm said.

She also announced that utilities that decide to build AP1000 reactors will have major support from the federal government. The DOE’s Loan Programs Office “stands ready to help,” with hundreds of billions of dollars in financing available.

This commitment to building gigawatt-scale reactors comes at the same time when companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Google are turning to nuclear to meet their growing power needs. “Plants like [Vogtle], obviously, are economic magnets, because clean, 24/7 power is now irresistible to companies that are looking to build big manufacturing facilities, big data centers,” Granholm explained.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has celebrated Illinois' status as a leading data center hub, and the recently-passed state budget allocates $500 million toward quantum computing research and development. However, he also ensured the technology for powering these facilities cleanly would remain illegal to build in our state.

Less than a year ago, Gov. Pritzker vetoed a bill that would have ended the decades-old ban on new nuclear power in Illinois — in spite of the supermajority it received in both chambers. “The bill … will open the door to the proliferation of large-scale nuclear reactors,” Pritzker explained.

Ironically, the large reactors he apparently fears and ensured would remain banned are the exact reactors that the Biden administration is now calling to be built by the hundreds.

This failure is the inevitable result of letting anti-nuclear organizations dictate energy policy. The Illinois Environmental Council and the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club urged the governor for a veto, then celebrated when he obliged.

“These vetoes are solidifying that he is somebody who’s going to choose climate action, every time,” said Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council.

However, large nuclear plants like the kind banned by this veto and revision are Illinois’ largest source of clean energy. In 2023, the state’s 11 reactors accounted for 80% of Illinois’ carbon-free power in 2023.

“SB76 would have opened the door to increased risk, negative environmental impacts, and higher costs for consumers while jeopardizing our progress toward Illinois’ clean energy future,” said Sierra Club Illinois Director Jack Darin.

Rather than costing consumers, Illinois’ nuclear plants ended up returning an estimated $1 billion to Illinois residents in 2022. While the rest of the state and nation saw electricity bills rise due to the global energy crisis, ComEd customers actually saw bills go down by an average of $237 a year.

Illinois should be the obvious choice for new nuclear opportunities and investments. It is the leading producer of nuclear energy in the U.S., accounting for one-eighth of the nation's total nuclear power generation in 2023. Illinois also has the largest number of nuclear reactors in operation in the U.S., each of similar size to the AP1000s in Georgia. As a result, Illinois has the largest nuclear workforce of any state, with an extensive ecosystem of trades and unions supporting operations.

Despite Vogtle's significantly higher price tag and schedule delays, the Biden administration clearly sees the long-term benefits of gigawatt-sized nuclear reactors. “We’ve solved our greatest design challenges. We’ve stood up entire supply chains … You all have trained thousands of skilled workers. And so, it’s time to cash in on those investments by building more,” Granholm said.

Thanks to the short-sighted intervention of Gov. Pritzker, other states will begin cashing in while Illinois loses lucrative opportunities for clean energy investment and jobs. A full repeal of our nuclear ban — the original bipartisan bill passed by the legislature — would reaffirm Illinois’ status as a clean energy leader today and give us a competitive advantage to attract growing industries well into the future.

• Madison Hilly is executive director of Campaign for a Green Nuclear Deal. Alan Medsker is Illinois coordinator of campaign for a Green Nuclear Deal.

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