In 1987, a provision of the Illinois Public Utilities Act banned the construction of any new nuclear power plant in the state until a permanent high level waste repository is approved without express permission via a statute by the General Assembly.
This bill artificially limits the future energy options of the state by taking a source that is currently an important source of baseload power to the state off the table for future development. Illinois currently has six nuclear power plants with 11 reactors between them. In 2021, 53.3 percent of the state’s power came from these 11 units.
Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed a bill, S.B. 0076 that would have removed the language in the Public Utilities Act that bans new nuclear plant construction. This updated language would instead allow for the construction of “Advanced” reactors, which include the AP1000 reactor which is the design of Plant Vogtle Unit 3 that recently came online in Georgia. This definition would also include new small modular reactor designs.
The bill passed both houses with supermajority votes, but has hit a road block at the Governor’s office. On August 11th, Governor J. B. Pritzker vetoed the bill.
The governor’s complaints with the bill center around the distinction between “advanced” and the initial language of “compact”. Pritzker has expressed an acceptance of small modular reactors, but appears to draw the line there.
Bill proponents, including sponsor State Senator Sue Rezin, were taken aback by the governor’s veto. “The governor’s veto of my bill was a complete shock to everyone involved. This was a heavily negotiated bill. On both sides of the aisle,” Sen. Rezin said.
Gov. Pritzker has been working very closely with anti-nuclear environmental groups during this process, punctuated by a letter from the Sierra Club Illinois Chapter and Illinois Environmental Council entreating the Governor to veto the bill.
The letter cites the expense of nuclear plants, the opinion that they would not solve grid capacity issues, outdated rules and regulations for nuclear, and the nuclear waste issue as its primary motivations.
The first two points, that of expense and of solving grid capacity issues are not decisions to be made at the level of a ban on a technology, they are decisions to be made at the utility level as a particular plant is proposed and it’s individual costs and benefits can be weighed. A blanket ban precludes that possibility. The letter also suggests that the interconnection of primarily wind, solar, and batter storage capacity from out of state will fill the state’s needs better than new nuclear plants would, a view that ignores the intermittency issues of wind and solar entirely. “We’re going to spend over $1 billion dollars in the next five years, building out, improving, and putting in new electric lines in Illinois to connect us to Iowa, Missouri and Indiana so that they can safely send more electricity without melting our grid,” said State Rep. Dan Caulkins about this preference for bringing in power from other states.
As far as regulations go, in the first place there are already incredibly stringent federal regulations around the oversight, regulation, and siting of nuclear plants. The state itself is also already in the position of regulating nuclear power plants. Illinois already operates the most nuclear power plants of any state in the country, so the implication that it is somehow ill-equiped to do so is an unreasonable one.
When it comes to the waste issue, although the ban was initially intended to be in place in the interim before a permanent geologic waste repository was established by the federal government, waste management at sites across the country is safe.
Overall, the Sierra Club and other groups have successfully lobbied the Governor to veto the bill over supermajority votes from the legislature with Rezin noting that, “This is a pattern of a governor that is bending to special interests.”
There is still the possibility of the bill being passed over the Governor’s veto, and Sen. Rezin has already filed the necessary paperwork for the bill to be brought up in the fall veto session.
Catalyst articles by Paige Lambermont | Full Biography and Publications