Ending state's nuclear power moratorium can speed transition to clean energy
Last September, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a massive climate and energy plan into law. It couldn't have been more dramatic: two nuclear plants were only hours away from permanent shutdown when the bill was passed. How did we come so close to losing 30 percent of Illinois's clean electricity?
It actually wasn't the nuclear subsidies. Those had been settled months before. The sticking point that almost sunk the whole deal was the fate of coal, Illinois' second-largest source of power after nuclear. Unions and coal town representatives and senators were rejecting a requirement to close all coal plants by 2030.
In a last-minute compromise, the new legislation differentiated between two sets of coal plants. All investor-owned coal plants must close by 2030 and coal-fired power plants owned by municipalities must either reach zero emissions or shutter by 2045. This means Illinois must close 6.7 gigawatts of coal capacity in the next eight years. That's as much capacity as three Hoover Dams.
Closing these plants certainly would drop emissions. It also means the loss of an estimated 1,200 jobs. The unemployment numbers jump even higher when you take the loss of state coal mines into account. Illinois is America's fourth-largest coal producer. Throw in the sharp jump in out-of-state fossil imports during low wind periods, higher electricity prices and lost tax revenues and the collateral damage gets dizzying.
The law acknowledges the shift away from coal will seriously impact communities across the state. It outlines the need for a "just transition," offering community grants, scholarships for children of displaced fossil-fuel families and opportunities for re-education. These solutions don't address the need for reliable power, local jobs and tax revenue.
Workers and coal communities remain skeptical of the energy transition. The vast majority of jobs created by solar and wind are temporary, transient and can't be created in the same places where fossil jobs are lost. Nor do green energy jobs offer the pay, benefits or union organizing potential of the fossil jobs they claim to replace.
If Illinois is going to successfully shift away from fossil fuels, its transition to carbon-free energy needs to meet the needs and interests of folks responsible for delivering it. One strong option: nuclear power.
With some finesse, nuclear reactors can be placed on retiring coal plant sites to take advantage of existing transmission, water and transportation infrastructure. Since nuclear plants need workers with skills and training that can directly overlap with work at coal plants, this would secure jobs in energy for the existing workforce.
Nuclear plants require a lot more workers than coal plants, but still make cheaper power because they use almost no fuel. Any mine job losses are more than compensated for by new jobs at the nuclear plant, which often pay even better. There's a reason Homer Simpson has a house and feeds a family of five on one nuclear plant job.
Nuclear also offers significant benefits to communities. Nuclear plants are unmatched economic engines, paying an average of $16 million in state and local taxes each year. And for every 100 jobs created by the power plant, another 66 are created in the community.
Coal-to-nuclear means everybody wins. But it's currently banned by state law.
Illinois has an old ban on new nuclear construction, a relic from the 1970s when carbon was irrelevant to environmentalists. In the face of climate change and volatile natural gas prices, states including Wisconsin (2016), Kentucky (2017), Montana (2021), West Virginia (2022) and most recently, Indiana (2022), have banished their nuclear bans.
Illinois has a chance to follow these states' lead and open the door to new nuclear power. State Rep. Mark Walker, an Arlington Heights Democrat, has introduced HB 5589 in the Illinois General Assembly, a bill that would repeal the state's nuclear moratorium.
Campaign for a Green Nuclear Deal studied the issue with Chicago-based research consultancy Radiant Energy Group. We found that if the eight coal plants in Illinois scheduled to close by 2030 were replaced with nuclear, their 18 million metric tons of emissions would be avoided annually. If we ran the new nuclear plants at full capacity to displace imported natural gas, it could prevent an additional 16 million metric tons each year.
Illinois is already the best state in the country at generating nuclear power. We should also be leading the country in deploying new nuclear to reach our ambitious clean energy goals. By repealing the state's nuclear moratorium, we can provide coal communities with a powerful new beginning that until now seemed impossible: producing clean electricity without sacrificing the things that make coal valuable
• Madison Hilly is executive director of Campaign for a Green Nuclear Deal. Alan Medsker is Illinois coordinator of campaign for a Green Nuclear Deal.