Is nuclear power good for Illinois?

Nuclear energy has always been divisive, and now the Russian invasion of Ukraine has intensified the debate.

Faced with soaring energy prices and an untrustworthy natural gas supplier like Russia, the UK has announced plans to build up to eight new reactors. France plans to continue to supply much of its electricity from nuclear power, while Germany has pledged to continue the gradual closure of its nuclear plants, resisting pressure to keep them in operation.

As far as the United States is concerned, electricity generation from split atoms has declined in recent years and more reactors are being retired than built.

If you’re in Illinois, however, you’re big on nuclear power – for better or for worse. Governor JB Pritzker made sure of that.

When the governor signed a sweeping energy plan last year, he committed the state’s citizens to extending the life of three former nuclear power plants that would otherwise have to be shut down. An estimated $700 million will go to scandal-ridden Commonwealth Edison parent company, which agreed to continue operating union factories in return for a government bailout.

Do other states less invested in nuclear power — or Germany, for that matter — know something that Illinois doesn’t? Actually no. The pros and cons are well understood and they start with the money.

Despite all the assurances that nuclear power plants are clean, efficient and reliable, they have proven to be expensive. They require an upfront fortune to build, cost overruns and delays are the norm, and they’re especially unprofitable in states like Illinois, where deregulation has made electricity prices uncertain.

Aside from the damage caused by slowing emissions at fossil fuel power plants, nuclear facilities are potentially much more dangerous. They create some of the deadliest waste imaginable and are targets for terrorists and others who seek to do harm.

If anyone needs a reminder, consider Chernobyl, site of the worst nuclear accident in history on an April evening 36 years ago, and still an active threat today. At the start of the invasion of Ukraine, Russian forces occupied the site and scared the whole of Europe by cutting off the power to the plant and raising its radioactive soil.

Consider also Japan, which, like Illinois, relied on atomic power until the 2011 earthquake and tsunami devastated its Fukushima nuclear power plant. In the aftermath, nuclear energy has gone from supplying about 30% of the country’s electricity to only 7.5% in 2019. Worldwide, the number of nuclear power plants is declining and the share of the electricity they produce has fallen to 10.3%, from a peak of 17.5% in the mid-1990s.

Nuclear power plants are back in fashion today partly because of the impact of Russia’s war on energy prices, but more because they produce electricity without releasing carbon in the atmosphere, causing global warming. As the world races to reduce fossil fuel emissions, as it should, the risks of nuclear power are being reassessed.

In the United Kingdom, which since the 1990s has reduced its dependence on nuclear energy, one of the main objectives is to deploy a new generation of smaller and cheaper reactors. Other countries are also re-examining their nuclear power options, and the European Union, pressured by France’s growing influence, is seeking to encourage investment by officially declaring reactors green.

Reducing climate-damaging greenhouse gas emissions was an important part of Pritzker’s energy package. He signed the legislation at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, presumably to suggest he was saving penguins as well as union jobs at ComEd’s nuclear power plants that were more relevant to the bill’s passage.

Despite the huge grant for a utility that admitted it engineered a state government bribery scheme, other parts of the legislation show promise: Illinois is behind schedule in phasing out its power plants in dirty coal, which the law should finally accomplish. Promoting electric cars will help reduce emissions compared to gasoline-powered vehicles, even after taking into account the electricity used for charging.

As for the role of the “atomic governor” in ensuring that Illinois remains committed to nuclear energy, the reality is that the state will have company. Nuclear energy will be part of the global energy mix for many years to come. It is possible that innovators will find a responsible way to manage radioactive waste and mitigate risk. Investors are making new bets on a recovery, and like virtually all commodity prices these days, uranium prices are soaring.

It’s too early to declare a nuclear power renaissance, but keeping minds and options open makes sense for Illinois right now. Fingers crossed that Pritzker’s $700 million payout to a company that cheated the state for years at least delivers the juice.

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