Veto session last bet on lifting Illinois' nuclear ban this year

During this week's veto session starting Tuesday, the state legislature will decide the ultimate fate of a bill that would enable the construction of new nuclear reactors in Illinois.

Vetoed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in August, the law would lift a 30-year moratorium on building new nuclear sites, paving the way for what some advocates deem a necessary climate solution and others regard as dangerous and expensive.

The legislation's Senate sponsor state Sen. Sue Rezin, a Morris Republican, said while she hopes the bill will get called for a veto override vote, another option does exist. Rezin introduced new legislation to address the governor's concerns.

The measure, which could pass through both chambers this week, would narrow the definition of new nuclear projects to exclude large-scale reactors, as well as give the Illinois Emergency Management Agency additional oversight over the projects.

Small modular reactors

In his veto letter, Pritzker outlined concerns that the legislation would open the door to "large-scale nuclear reactors that are so costly to build that they will cause exorbitant ratepayer-funded bailouts."

Despite its ability to reliably provide carbon-free energy, nuclear power takes more time and money to build than renewables such as solar and wind. For instance, Georgia's Vogtle plant's two new units - the first to be built in the U.S. in three decades - are coming online years behind schedule and billions over budget.

Cost is one of the reasons why Rezin's bill focuses on small modular reactors, which are advanced nuclear reactors that have a power capacity of up to 300 MWe per unit. That's about one-third of the generating capacity of traditional nuclear power reactors.

As of 2022, there were three operational SMRs in the world in Russia, China and India. Though there are no small modular reactors under construction or operation in the U.S., the first SMR design to be certified by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission jumped that hurdle in January.

Rezin said the emerging technology is a key solution to climate change and reliability issues presented by renewable energy.

Illinois already gets a much larger percentage of its electricity from nuclear power than other states do, and therefore it relies on it more to hit its climate goals, namely reaching 100% clean energy by 2050.

"In order to decarbonize and reach our goals of reducing our carbon by the year 2050, we need to pave the way for new nuclear," she said. "We have a reliability problem in Southern Illinois that we need to solve, and new nuclear is the answer to help us in the future begin to create energy that is reliable, that generates 24/7, 365 days a year, rain or shine. This is not intermittent power. This is reliable, resilient power - regardless of the weather."

With 20 SMR projects undergoing the permit process in the U.S., Rezin added Illinois will be years behind other states if it does not lift the ban.

Currently, 12 states have restrictions on the construction of new nuclear power facilities, down from 16 after a handful of states, including Wisconsin, Indiana and Kentucky, repealed similar long-standing bans in the past several years.

Local regulation

Chief co-sponsor Rep. Mark Walker, an Arlington Heights Democrat and longtime supporter of nuclear, said SMRs will be "really valuable for the future" despite concerns about waste and potential accidents.

"I understand people's fear, but we haven't had any issues with waste and accidents in Illinois in at least 60 years. I think it's overblown," Walker said. "The thing to keep in mind about issues with regulation and siting is you have to go through environmental studies, multiple contacts with communities, and all kinds of things that the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires anyway."

Pritzker's veto letter referenced a lack of "regulatory protections or updates to address the health and safety of Illinois residents who would live and work around these new reactors."

The regulatory commission represents what Rezin calls "the most heavily regulated department at the federal level." To answer Pritzker's concern, the new bill would provide additional local oversight by the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.

"That's why it takes six to eight years to get your permit to build this. This is a very long process," Rezin said.

Jenny Whidden is a climate change and environment writer working with the Daily Herald through a partnership with Report For America supported by The Nature Conservancy. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see

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