Illinois is up against what one observer calls a “nuclear hostage crisis”: The energy company Exelon says it will close two struggling nuclear power plants unless the state provides subsidies.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because something very similar happened in Illinois about five years ago, leading to a 2016 state law that subsidized two other Exelon nuclear plants in the state—a law now tainted by a still-unfolding bribery scandal.
Despite all the reasons to tell Exelon to take a hike, some consumer and environmental advocates say there is a strong case for keeping the plants open because they are an important source of carbon-free electricity. This ties into the larger, often acrimonious debate about the role of nuclear power in the transition away from fossil fuels.
“It makes sense to us that people want to punish Exelon,” said David Kolata, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board in Chicago. “But you have to be careful not to punish consumers and the environment too. That’s what makes it a much more thorny issue.”
Exelon said last week that it would close the Byron and Dresden nuclear plants in 2021, but “will continue our dialogue with policymakers on ways to prevent these closures.”
If the Byron and Dresden plants close, fossil fuels probably would fill much of the void, leading to an increase in carbon emissions, the company said. This would be a major setback in the state’s push to move away from fossil fuels.
Exelon owns all six nuclear plants in Illinois. This includes the two that would close in 2021, two (the Braidwood and LaSalle plants) that the company says are at risk of closing for financial reasons but are not yet scheduled to close and two (the Quad Cities and Clinton plants) that are subsidized by the 2016 law.
The six plants produced 54 percent of the electricity generated in the state last year. Coal is a distant second with 27 percent, followed by natural gas with 10 percent.
Renewable energy is growing, thanks in part to programs that also were part of the 2016 nuclear bailout legislation. But wind and solar are still small shares of the energy mix, with 8 percent and less than 1 percent, respectively.
Kolata said he supports giving additional aid to Exelon as long as it’s part of a legislative package that increases support for renewable energy and energy conservation, and as long as the company agrees to open its books to prove that the plants actually need the help.
“We see nuclear as the bridge to renewables,” he said. “We’d like to see coal go first, then gas, then nuclear.”
He said lawmakers should view the plants as an energy asset independent of the company that owns them.
Exelon has a lot of baggage these days. Federal prosecutors said in July that Commonwealth Edison, which is owned by Exelon, provided illegal payments and favors to help persuade lawmakers to pass the 2016 nuclear bailout.
ComEd agreed to pay $200 million to resolve the case, and is now cooperating in an ongoing probe that is likely to be focused on the lawmakers who allegedly accepted the favors, including Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, a Democrat.
Adding to the complexity of this debate is that environmental advocates are divided on whether nuclear should be part of a clean energy future. The case against nuclear is that it’s unsafe, with risks of devastating accidents and concerns about where to store nuclear waste.
David Kraft, director of the Nuclear Energy Information Service in Chicago, describes this latest push by Exelon as “yet another nuclear hostage crisis.” His group has been campaigning since 1981 for the country to phase out nuclear power.
“A better future for our children would be one that’s both carbon-free and radioactive waste free!” Kraft said in a guest commentary published Monday in The Chicago Tribune.
“To create a truly low-carbon and less-polluting energy future, put those funds gambled on nuclear directly into renewables, efficiency and energy storage upfront instead, eliminating nuclear power’s unpredictable risks and perpetual bailouts,” he said.
Some organizations have tried to stake out a middle ground. The Union of Concerned Scientists, a longtime nuclear watchdog, issued a report in 2018 that said nuclear bailouts can be good public policy if the plants are well-maintained, the plant owners are transparent about their financial needs, and the subsidies are part of a larger package that moves toward a transition to clean energy.
I’ve cited the UCS report many times since then because it helps to distinguish between proposals that have clear public benefits and those that are corporate giveaways.
The 2016 Illinois energy law met most, if not all, of the report’s conditions. Kolata and others in Illinois would like to see legislation this year that would do the same.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, also is interested in passing major clean energy legislation this year, but he has said he won’t sign a bill “written by utility companies.”
I’ll be watching to see how this unfolds.
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