Nuclear expansion should also be part of Illinois' clean-energy future

Regarding his guest piece in the Jan. 24 Daily Herald, we agree with Eliot Clay on the importance of ensuring clean, affordable and reliable power in Illinois regardless of weather conditions. Fortunately for the state, Illinois is ahead of the game thanks to its fleet of nuclear power plants.

Nuclear power is the backbone of Illinois's clean energy, producing nearly 90% of the state's carbon-free electricity. In 2021, nuclear generated twice as much electricity as coal and five times as much electricity as solar and wind in Illinois. Because it doesn't require battery storage or back-up, nuclear provides clean power day and night, all year round.

In recognition of the importance of nuclear to Illinois's clean energy future, the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act passed in 2021 included a provision to ensure nuclear would not get pushed out of the market by fossil fuels or heavily-subsidized renewables. We pointed out in a previous Daily Herald commentary that this would be a powerful hedge against future energy price spikes.

Less than a year later, Russia's invasion of Ukraine kicked off a global energy crisis. While electricity bills across most of America climbed, Chicago and the suburbs saw their bills go down. Rather than cost residents money, the state's nuclear policy began saving families around $240 a year - a $1 billion rebate from the nuclear plants back to customers.

Illinois' nuclear plants are among the best in the world. Nuclear plants of similar design and vintage are seeing the lives of their reactors extended to 80 years, with no limitation in sight. With proper maintenance and part replacement, these plants can continue to operate like new even further beyond that. Today's nuclear plants could be providing Illinois with clean power well past 2050.

Nuclear also offers a compelling option for coal communities in Illinois. The state is slated to close more than three Hoover Dams worth of coal power in the next seven years. These communities are facing the loss of tax revenue, jobs and purpose. The question is how to protect these communities while replacing the immense power they currently provide?.

With some finesse, nuclear reactors can be placed on retiring coal plant sites to take advantage of existing transmission, water and transportation infrastructure. This would preserve jobs and revenue in Illinois's existing energy communities. It would also make certain that the replacement energy is reliable in addition to being carbon-free. A rare win-win.

However, this option is not available to the coal communities of the state. Illinois has a decades-old moratorium on nuclear power, meaning there are restrictions on the construction of new nuclear plants.

The moratorium was introduced under the premise that Illinois had no solution to nuclear waste, which is simply the used nuclear fuel. In actuality, Illinois has a perfect record for managing and storing waste. The used fuel is stored at the power plant in steel and concrete "casks," requiring less space than a parking lot. In the future, this fuel can be recycled to produce even more power for the reactors!

Back in 1987 when Illinois's nuclear moratorium was passed, carbon was irrelevant to environmentalists. Nearly 40 years later, we understand the need for clean and reliable nuclear powering our state regardless of time of day or season.

Fortunately, action is already being taken to change this. Rep. Mark Walker, an Arlington Heights Democrat, has introduced a bill to repeal the ban. Sen. Sue Rezin, a Morris Republican, has filed a similar bill in the Senate, one of numerous indications that the proposal will enjoy bipartisan support. These bills require no allocation of funding or commitment to building future nuclear power plants - they simply put the option for new nuclear investment back on the table in Illinois.

Illinois already leads the country in carbon-free nuclear power production. Now, it should position itself to lead in new nuclear development. The existing workforce and outstanding operational experience give the state a major leg-up for winning new investment. We echo Mr. Clay's point that Illinois and its leaders should support and invest in putting more reliable resources on the grid, and this must include nuclear.

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

Madison Hilly
Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.