Ten Things to Consider Before we Start Building Nuclear Plants in Illinois Again

04/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jimmy Seidita Blogs about environmental issues in the Chicago region

As lawmakers in Washington scramble to figure out how to avert the financial catastrophe caused by "toxic assets," our lawmakers in Springfield are preparing to vote on jumpstarting a new generation of the mother of all toxic assets, nuclear power plants.

With 11 operating and 3 closed plants, Illinois already has the most nukes in the nation. ComEd customers get about 60% of their power from nuclear plants. (to see the chart, go here and click on Commonwealth Edison Company)

But in 1987, around the time that construction was completed on the last nuclear plants, the legislature voted to place a moratorium on new nuclear plants in Illinois, until the United States "has identified and approved a demonstrable technology or means for the disposal of high level nuclear waste"

A bill to lift the moratorium to allow new nuclear plants is now pending in Springfield, and set for a vote April 3. This is such an awful idea, for so many reasons, it's hard to pick, but here are my top ten:

1. The last nukes built here were horrendously expensive. While we've not had a Chernobyl or Three Mile Island-type accident, the economic impact of these plants has been nothing short of catastrophic, sucking billions of wasted dollars out of the state economy.

Illinois' three most recent nuclear plants, at Byron, Braidwood and Clinton, were all completed years behind schedule, and each one a billion or more dollars over budget. Byron and Braidwood came in at five times the original cost estimates. Clinton at ten times. Because of the huge costs of the nukes, for most of the 1980s and 1990s ComEd charged residential electric rates that were almost double the rates charged by neighboring utilities without nukes.

(For a meticulous blow-by-blow of the battle between ComEd and its customers over the costs of its nuclear program, see this treatise by James Throgmorton. In a better world, at least one legislator would ask a staffer to skim this book before they vote to start building nuclear plants again.)

2. The nukes we already built have been fantastically unreliable. Five of Com Ed's newest nukes have endured outages of a full year or more. The Clinton plant and both LaSalle units shut down for repairs in 1996. LaSalle 1 wasn't back in service until the summer of 1998, and LaSalle 2 and Clinton weren't running again until 1999. The two units at Zion were enduring similar long outages before ComEd decided to pull the plug on them permanently, in 1998.

People often ask about wind energy: "What happens when the wind isn't blowing?" but that issue seems trivial when compared to huge plants that break down and need years of repairs to get going again.

3. There is still no place to put the waste. In fact, a national waste repository is even more remote now than it was in 1987 when the moratorium was passed. Earlier this month, new Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that the administration was abandoning plans to put a national nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Although the federal government has spent 22 years and 13 billion dollars developing the site, they have decided to go to Plan B. And currently, there is no Plan B. So while they begin to figure out what Plan B is going to be, the waste stays here on site, and Illinois remains the biggest nuclear waste dump in the U.S. for the foreseeable future.

4. Reprocessing is not a solution. The industry lately has been saying that if we can't dump the waste somewhere, we can just "recycle" it, the way France does. (Funny that many of the same voices who are so appalled by France's socialist tendencies are also so enthralled by its socialist nuclear industry.)

You know who really wants reprocessing even more than the nuclear power companies? Terrorists. Reprocessed waste is even more useful for a suitcase bomb or other fanatical mischief than the regular waste. If reprocessing was a dodgy proposition pre-9/11, it is simply unthinkable in the post 9/11 world.

5. After the debacle of the 1980s nukes, new laws were enacted to ensure that new plants would be needed, affordable, and sited in the right place. Those laws have all been repealed. The Illinois Commerce Commission, which rubber stamped the last round of plants and came to sorely regret it, no longer has even the rubber stamp. Along with the ICC, the state EPA and the Department of Natural Resources have been stripped of authority over siting of new power plants. Once this moratorium is lifted, no Illinois state agency needs to approve a nuclear plant for it to be built. And no state agency will have authority to stop it.

6. The task force that the legislature created last year to study this issue and report back has not studied the issue, and not reported back. After being created in July of 2008, the task force held their first and only meeting in December, where the chairs announced that there was no time to conduct any investigations or prepare any report, and they would seek to be reauthorized for 2009. But even in the absence of any serious analysis of these complicated issues, many legislators are ready to vote right now to green light more nuclear plants for Illinois.

7. More nukes will prevent the cleaner energy we really need. The state does indeed need to get busy getting the carbon emissions out of our electric grid. The best way to do that is to start adding substantial amounts of wind energy and efficiency to the system. But unlike renewables, which can be gradually added to the system, and scaled up or down to meet changing needs, nuclear plants come in only one size: humongous. If the state decides to go with a 1,000 megawatt nuclear plant, that's 1,000 wind turbines that don't get built. If we spend $5 billion on a new nuclear plant, that's $5 billion that isn't being spent to improve end-use efficiency (updating or replacing energy-wasting appliances, equipment and processes).

After decades of being completely shut out by the nukes, renewables and efficiency are finally getting their foot in the door of the Illinois market. But ComEd spent more money on legal fees fighting over the costs of the last round of nuclear plants than they have ever invested in renewables or energy efficiency.

8. If we need to spend money to create jobs (and we do), there are better things to spend it on than nuclear plants. Nuclear fission is the most capital intensive energy technology, meaning the biggest share of the money goes to the steel and concrete needed to build the thing, and relatively little goes to pay salaries of people working there. Compare with labor intensive renewables like wind and especially, energy efficiency, where a much bigger share of the total costs goes to pay people. If you are trying to create jobs, nuclear plants are the worst choice.

9. We're still not sure what the final cost will be for the plants we already have. Estimates of the costs to decommission the plants (take them apart and store the pieces) vary widely, in part because none of the Illinois plants have been fully decommissioned. Although the original plan was to take the plants apart at the end of their useful lives and decontaminate or store the radioactive pieces somewhere, Com Ed has thus far gotten approval to postpone the process, even for plants like Dreden #1, and the two Zion plants, which have been shut down for over ten years. Other plants, such as the other Dresden units, got license extensions as they neared the end of their license lives.

As decommissioning cost estimates continued to rise, it became clear that ComEd would not have enough money put aside to pay for the eventual dismantling and clean up of the sites. But they solved that problem a few years ago, by putting what money they did have into the stock market. How's that plan working guys?

10. "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The moratorium passed in 1987 with huge majorities in both houses, of Democrats and Republicans, upstate and downstate. They didn't need to pass that law. No one asked them to, and at the time it seemed completely unnecessary. But that moratorium was a message in a bottle from the lawmakers of twenty years ago, saying in effect, "Going nuclear was a huge mistake that we all regret. It's made a mess of our electric system, our regulatory system, and worst of all, the state's economy. Please, don't go down this road again."

Having witnessed the Wall Street bailouts, the nuclear industry is drunk with possibilities, and elbowing their way up to the trough. But this boondoggle won't be paid for by future generations of federal tax payers. This will be billions of wasted dollars that Illinois families and businesses are going to have to start paying right away through their electric bills. And it will further postpone the real transition to sustainable energy that we so urgently need.

The bill is expected to come up for a vote on April 3. Interestingly, nearly none of the 33 listed sponsors was around when the moratorium originally passed. Here's hoping that when the general assembly votes next week to revisit the nuclear option, they take a moment to think about what happened last time.