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NUCLEAR_reactor on beach

Phil Taylor - Medill Chicago

The Palisades nuclear facility on Lake Michigan near South Haven, Mich.  Power companies may  be allowed to build new nuclear power plants in Illinois if lawmakers vote this week to lift the current moratorium.

Ban on new Illinois nuclear reactors may be lifted

by Phil Taylor
April 15, 2008

For the first time in more than 20 years, new nuclear reactors could be considered for an Illinois town near you.

Lawmakers in the Illinois House are expected to vote this week on an amendment to the Public Utilities Act that would lift the long-standing state moratorium on new nuclear reactors. Under the current ban, new reactors cannot be built without the “demonstrable technology” to safely store the high-level radioactive waste produced by nuclear plants.

So far, no such technology exists, and best-case scenarios by the federal Department of Energy suggest a proposed nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada won’t be operable until 2017. But lawmakers such as amendment sponsor, Rep. JoAnn Osmond (R- Antioch), say this is no reason to discount the benefits of nuclear energy.

Even if the amendment passes, it would take several years for any plant proposals to pass the licensing and financial hurdles necessary to begin construction of a new reactor.  In addition, global demand for reactor parts has grown and supplies are prohibitively tight.

Illinois currently has 11 operating nuclear reactors that produce about 45 percent of the state’s electricity.  Warrenville-based Exelon Nuclear, which operates all but one of the reactors, said it has no plans to expand nuclear power in Illinois.

“We don’t have any plans to build new plants in Illinois,” said company spokeswoman Krista Lopykinski.  “We really are not involved in any details of it.”

Exelon’s recently approved early site permit at its Clinton, Ill. plant was filed to clear the way for the possibility of future projects, however, Lopykinski said.

Still, environmental activists and at least one legislator are complaining that the amendment was rushed through the house public utilities committee earlier this month.

The committee held a hearing on April 2 with little warning and not enough public comment, said Jonathan Goldman, executive director of the Springfield-based Illinois Environmental Council.

“It always concerns us when they try to sneak something through,” Goldman said. The council was unaware of the amendment until a half hour before it was approved in a 10-2 committee vote, he said.  The action could be considered by the full House as soon as Thursday.  The amendment would then move to the state senate, sponsored by Sen. Michael Bond (D-Grayslake).

“Hopefully, we’ll have a few days to talk to the individual legislators,” Goldman said. “This is a pretty major change that would be taking place.”

Rep. Al Riley (D-Matteson), one of two committee members to vote against the amendment, said he wasn’t ready to support such a sweeping proposal.

“I wanted to make sure it wasn’t something we made a mistake about,” said Riley. “That’s not the way you bring up something so controversial.”

Riley said Illinois voters should have more time to weigh-in on nuclear power, since they will be sharing the risks.

“Here’s an example of something that needs public scrutiny, both from the general public and advocacy groups,” he said. “It needs full participation among all the stakeholders.” 

“Everyone is a little concerned,” said Osmond, whose district includes a nuclear plant in Zion that was shut down in 1998, due in part to a poor safety record.  “Are safeguards there? I believe they are.”

Similar nuclear debates are taking place in other states as well. A bill to overturn California’s three-decade-old ban on new nuclear reactors was defeated last year.  Meanwhile, the Wisconsin state legislature is debating whether to lift its 26-year nuclear reactor ban.

Osmond said each new nuclear plant could generate 1,500 to 2,000 new jobs and help the state keep pace with rising energy demands. The U.S. is projected to need between 30-50 percent more energy by 2030, she said.

Nuclear power is produced using the heat released from nuclear fission.  Enriched uranium atoms are split in a chain reaction inside a reactor core. The heat converts water to steam, which powers an electromagnetic turbine to create electricity. 

Advocates tout nuclear energy as a potential solution to global warming because it produces virtually no greenhouse gas emissions compared to coal-fired power plants.  A federal energy bill was passed in December earmarking $20.5 billion in loan guarantees for construction of new reactors and uranium enrichment. Nuclear plant construction costs are estimated to be between $3 billion to $9 billion each.

With federal aid on the table, power companies now await state approval.

“Thirty years from now, I don’t want to say we didn’t look into this,” Osmond said.  “I think we have to look to the future.” 

The U.S. currently has 104 nuclear power plants that generate 20 percent of the country’s energy, but no new plants have been built since 1996.

Long-standing concerns over contamination, terrorist attacks and waste storage remain. David Kraft, director of the Chicago-based watchdog group Nuclear Energy Information Service, said today’s safeguards against radioactive contamination and terrorism are not foolproof.
“For the nearest foreseeable future, all of this waste is going to have to remain onsite,” Kraft said.  Nuclear waste is currently stored at each of Illinois’ six nuclear power facilities.  In Zion, about 1,000 tons of nuclear waste have been stored since the nuclear plant shut down in 1998.

In 2006, Exelon was sued by the state of Illinois for failing to report that its Braidwood nuclear plant had been releasing wastewater containing traces of radioactive tritium into groundwater surrounding the plant since 1996. Trace amounts of the element were detected in residents' tap water supply, but at levels well below the federal drinking water limits.