In midst of health crisis, need for nuclear power ever more clear

  • Alan Medsker

    Alan Medsker

By Alan Medsker
Guest columnist
Posted3/22/2020 1:00 AM

We are in the midst of a pandemic, the likes of which has not been seen in our lifetimes. Pandemics have happened in the past. But this time is different from any other in our history. This time we have a new tool -- our technology powered by electricity.

To slow the spread of the virus and "flatten the curve," we are asked to social distance. For many of us this means meeting on Zoom while our children do e-learning and ordering our food online for no-contact delivery, rather than going to the office or school and our favorite restaurant. It means staying in our warm, well-lit homes watching TV, rather than going out to a movie. It means using FaceTime with Grandma and Grandpa, rather than visiting them in their retirement community. This technology requires electricity.


When people do get sick, the nurses and doctors in our hospitals are able to treat them with the help of lifesaving technology, like ventilators. This technology requires electricity.

Here in northern Illinois, we are fortunate that much of the electricity we need to power our technology is generated by our six nuclear power stations. These plants produce over half of all the electricity in our state while emitting no CO2. We have more of them, and more clean electricity from them, than any other state. They generate nearly 90% of our clean electricity, using the most reliable and safe generation technology available. In addition, these plants take up tiny plots of land and do their work without intruding on the nature around them. Most people I ask don't even know where these plants are because the physical and environmental footprints of these remarkable facilities are so small.

Our nuclear plants have been serving us for many years, but they are nowhere near ready for retirement. Nuclear plants don't really have expiration dates, and some of ours are already licensed to run well into the 2040s. And when a nuclear plant's operating license nears expiration, a 20-year extension, which requires a thorough, lengthy inspection, can be applied for.

Our nuclear plants are meticulously maintained, and components are regularly refurbished or replaced. They run better, with more power output, than they did when they were new. The dedicated and talented folks who operate these plants work hard 24/7 to ensure that our nuclear power plants run smoothly now and will be here to serve us for many more decades. Which means it's that much less work to achieve a 100% clean grid.

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Our nuclear plants, simply put, are the crown jewels of the electric grid in Illinois.

However, our nuclear plants are economically stressed. It's difficult to make money in an electricity wholesale market that pays attention only to price, when your competitors can burn cheap fracked fossil gas and send their exhaust up the chimney for free. Low fuel prices and no regulations on CO2 emissions tilt the market in favor of dirty fossil plants. In fact, it's tilted so much that the operator of our nuclear plants is considering closing one or more of them.

If a nuclear plant shuts down, coal and gas plants will gladly step in and provide the necessary generation, along with a huge spike in globe-warming CO2 and deadly NOx and SOx emissions. Allowing our nuclear plants to close early (an event that cannot be reversed) will set us back a decade or more in our quest for 100% clean electricity.

We can't let that happen.

Tell your Illinois state legislators that we need to show our nuclear clean energy workhorses some love. Ask them to support the Clean Energy Jobs Act, and to make sure that our clean energy generators are given the preference they deserve, so we can keep them in business. Let them know that even if there is a cost for helping these plants continue to operate, it is far less than the cost of replacing them.

Because closing even one of these clean, safe, ultrareliable power plants is just a bad idea.

• Alan Medsker is legislative outreach coordinator for Generation Atomic, a clean energy 501c3 organization.

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