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Nuclear option: Illinois grapples with the future of nuclear power

WSIU Public Broadcasting | By Andrew Adams | Capitol News Illinois,  March 17, 2023

Lawmakers consider loosening restrictions as environmentalists seek an end to state’s atomic age

A measure allowing the construction of new commercial nuclear power plants has bipartisan, bicameral support in the state legislature as the body considers its next steps in meeting carbon-free energy goals while maintaining grid reliability.

Its advocates say the measure would open the door for the use of smaller nuclear reactors to serve as a carbon-free power source when the wind doesn’t blow on turbines and the sun doesn’t shine on solar plants.

While proponents are hopeful, the technology behind nuclear power’s potential resurgence hasn’t yet been deployed for power generation anywhere in the United States. A few examples of small next generation reactors exist across the world, but in the U.S. only one of these smaller nuclear reactor designs has been approved by regulators…………….

The nuclear industry is all for this push. Representatives of Constellation Energy, the state’s nuclear power company, have said they support any legislation to make it easier to build nuclear reactors……….

But some environmentalists and anti-nuclear advocates say allowing new nuclear technologies represents a fundamental risk to the future of the carbon-free movement and the state’s environment………………………………………..

Two of the state’s major environmental advocacy groups, the Illinois Environmental Council and the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club, oppose lifting the moratorium on nuclear power plant construction.

“We believe that nuclear is not clean energy,” said Jack Darin, the director of the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club. “Its full life cycle has very serious impacts.”

After nuclear fuel is used, it continues to emit potentially hazardous radiation for tens of thousands of years. Eventually, this spent fuel should be moved to a long-term disposal facility, although no such facility has ever been designated or built in the U.S. This means waste is often kept on-site at nuclear facilities in pools or in steel cannisters designed to block radiation.

Grundy County has the nation’s only de facto permanent disposal site, and it has been at capacity since 1989. With nowhere to dispose of spent fuel, waste management continues to be an open question for the nuclear industry and the NRC.

Darin also pushed back on some of the concerns about electrification, pointing out that advancements in energy efficiency could reduce the overall load on the electric grid.

“The ideal path for our nuclear fleet is a steady reduction of our reliance on it,” Darin said.

……………………….A new regulatory landscape?

To facilitate this potential nuclear renaissance, lawmakers are considering two effectively identical proposals to end a moratorium on nuclear plant construction that has been in effect since 1987. The temporary ban was put in place pending the federal government’s designation of a long-term disposal site for nuclear waste.

One bill, House Bill 1079, was introduced by Rep. Mark Walker, D-Arlington Heights, and passed out of committee on Feb. 28 on a 18-3 vote. The second, Senate Bill 76, was introduced by Rezin and passed out of committee on March 9 by a 15-1 vote.

Nuclear construction was mostly abandoned after the 1980s

The average age of the nation’s nuclear fleet is just over 41 years old. Though the NRC is increasingly licensing plants to a lifespan of 60 or 80 years, this has raised questions about how long nuclear plants should be allowed to operate.

…………………. No commercial SMRs are online in the U.S., meaning their long-term economic benefits (or unforeseen costs) are yet to be seen……………………

Edwin Lyman is a physicist and director of nuclear power safety with the Union of Concerned Scientists. While he and the UCS took no position on lifting the state moratorium, he likened lifting the policy to “opening Pandora’s box.”

“We have extensively reviewed the safety claims for a range of new nuclear technologies that have been proposed and found that in general they offer few safety benefits compared to current technologies, and in some cases may pose even greater risks from accidents, terrorist attacks or extreme weather events made more probable by climate change,” Lyman said in written testimony to the Senate Energy and Public Utilities Committee.

In a follow-up interview, Lyman said construction moratoriums are one of the few ways states can regulate nuclear safety.

David Kraft is the head of the Nuclear Energy Information Service, an anti-nuclear advocacy group. He said that ending the moratorium could result in the state becoming the dumping ground for spent nuclear fuel.

“This puts a safety and security burden on the state that it didn’t sign up for,” Kraft said.

Kraft said he is particularly worried about ending the moratorium because of lawmakers’ interest in new nuclear models, like microreactors and small modular reactors. He cited the fact that some designs for smaller reactors don’t have safety features required for traditional reactors, like containment buildings………………………………………………………………………..

Under their current licenses, Illinois’ six nuclear power stations will be offline by 2047

Constellation has said they will extend the licenses of their plants to 80 years if they continue receiving state and federal support, although its predecessor company has announced (and reversed) plans to close four plants in the past 6 years.

………………….. Constellation announced in October that it’s applying to extend the life of its Dresden and Clinton plants for 20 more years. If the application is approved, Clinton could operate until 2047 and Dresden could operate until 2051.

………………. Nuclear critics have taken issue with the relationship the state has with its nuclear energy provider.

“For decades, the only way you could get renewables built in Illinois was if Exelon got something in exchange. Now it’s gonna be Constellation,” Kraft said. “They’ll come back in a few years for more bailouts. They’ll be complaining even if the small modulars come online because the market is lowering the prices. They’ll come up with excuses.”


March 20, 2023 - Posted by | politics, USA

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