ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Some Illinois lawmakers are fighting to lift a decades-old ban on the construction of new nuclear power plants, potentially putting the state in the first wave of a national nuclear renaissance.
Supporters of the idea, spurred by federal incentives aimed at kickstarting the industry nationwide, say the economic benefits in both construction jobs and electricity prices could be huge.
“Everybody can create all these imaginary ‘horribles,'” said state Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline, who has sponsored legislation to allow new plants in the state. “We should be thinking about how we can ensure that Illinois, with its leadership in nuclear power, keeps that.”
But opponents worry that Illinois — already home to the nation’s highest nuclear capacity — would become a natural destination for nuclear waste from other parts of the country if more plants are added in the state.
“There shouldn’t be any more new ones until you’ve dealt with the waste from the old ones,” said Dave Kraft, director of the Nuclear Energy Information Service, a nuclear power watchdog group in Chicago. The ban, Kraft noted, “was put in place to protect us from becoming a de facto nuclear waste dump. … The (ban) has done its job.”
The federal government’s push for a nuclear renaissance heightened in February, when President Barack Obama announced more than $8 billion in subsidies for the construction of a new plant in northeast Georgia. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is considering 12 other sites that also have applied to become the home of the first new U.S. plant in more than 30 years.
Jacobs’ legislation would give Illinois a chance at that designation. The legislation sailed through the state Senate last month, 40-1, and now goes to the House.
Exelon Corp. operates 11 nuclear reactors at six Illinois locations: Braidwood, Byron, Clinton, Dresden, LaSalle and the Quad Cities. That puts the state’s nuclear capacity at just less than the entire United Kingdom and highest in the United States, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Missouri has one nuclear plant, in Callaway County, operated by Ameren electric utility. The company’s plans to add a second reactor to the Callaway plant faded after Missouri lawmakers refused to repeal a provision barring utilities from raising customer rates to finance construction.
In 1987, Illinois in effect froze construction of any new nuclear plants, passing legislation that required the federal government to come up with a storage solution for waste before new plants could be built. The requirement piggy-backed on the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 that delegated responsibility to the U.S. government to establish a national nuclear waste disposal site.
Utilities have been suing the federal government for years for failing to provide that site. In July 2009, the Department of Energy estimated U.S. taxpayers could be on the hook for more than $12 billion even if the government has a waste site by 2020. A federal site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada was under consideration, but its application with nuclear regulators was withdrawn in March.
Jacobs, who chairs the Illinois Senate’s Energy committee, represents a district that includes Exelon’s Quad Cities nuclear plant. His father and former state senator from Moline, Denny Jacobs, is a registered lobbyist for ComEd, the Chicago-area energy utility under Exelon’s control.
Jacobs dismissed the suggestion that his father’s position as an industry lobbyist creates the appearance of a conflict of interest for him as he pursues a change in the law that could ultimately open up the industry to new profits. Jacobs said his position as chairman of the Senate’s Energy Committee — and his constituents’ pro-nuclear opinions on the topic — made him the logical sponsor of the bill.
“I don’t care how it looks,” said Jacobs. “I’m for it, so the notion that I should be worried about how something looks doesn’t reflect the feeling of the people who elected me to represent them.”
Jacobs said no opponents or proponents approached him, including his father.
“He didn’t lobby me on this issue, though he does have the right to lobby me. This is America last time I checked, and just because I support nuclear power, people shouldn’t question my motives,” Jacobs said.
Krista Lopykinski, spokeswoman for Exelon, said the company isn’t pushing for the legislation.
Kraft, of the nuclear watchdog group, expressed skepticism when told of that assertion. “This is Illinois,” said Kraft. “That’s political theater.”
One of the two senators to vote “present” on March 15 said lifting the ban was a “significant” undertaking and deserved debate by lawmakers. Jacobs made a brief presentation of the bill, but there was no debate or questions from senators on the floor before the vote.
“It came up very early in the session that day. I think the Senate just hadn’t found its rhythm yet, and I’m not sure that folks were ready to engage,” said Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park. “Shame on us for not debating it more fully.”
Patti Thompson, spokeswoman for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, which monitors nuclear plants, said any new ones would be equipped with the same system in place at existing ones. The 1979 nuclear scare at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island plant prompted then-Gov. Jim Thompson to order the creation of a state monitoring system to avoid dependence on a utility during an emergency.
The agency places sensors in each reactor, on plant stacks and in a two-mile radius around the structure. A state inspector also is stationed at each plant to evaluate the information and act as an inside contact in an emergency.
Jacobs said he hopes lifting the ban will encourage other utilities to build plants in Illinois that will service other states.
“The president obviously gives a green light” on nuclear energy, Jacobs said. “I just simply thought we should give him the chance to help his home state.”