While deserved attention has been given to the dreadful "right of first refusal" energy bill that Gov. Pritzker has vowed to veto, a second energy bill – repeal of the 1987 Illinois nuclear construction moratorium (SB76) – has all but vanished from radar. Yet this bill's implications for Illinois' energy future may be far greater and just as detrimental. SB 76 passed during the spring legislative session. Gov. Pritzker has given cautious indication he is inclined to sign it. He should not.
In April the governor reportedly said, "Banning nuclear entirely in a world where it's become much safer, things are smaller, less prone to an accident, more likely for us to be able to maintain them for a long time. That [lifting the ban] is something worth consideration.... The devil's in the details and we want to make sure we are not just opening this up to nuclear everywhere or every type of nuclear."
Regrettably, an 11th-hour amendment by downstate Rep. Lance Yednock, D-Ottawa, opened the gates of energy hell, allowing those energy devils to escape. A seemingly innocent word change radically altered the scope of the repeal, invalidated much of the committee and floor discussion that had taken place previously, and functionally opens Illinois up to "every type of nuclear" on the drawing boards, all without thorough investigation or understanding of the implications of this move.
Equally bad, while the 1987 moratorium was established and has served to prevent Illinois from becoming a de facto high-level radioactive waste dump, little discussion about radioactive waste disposal occurred during the five subject-matter hearings and several floor discussions over the past two years.
What those hearings did provide was a legislature-sanctioned trade show for so-called "small modular nuclear reactors" (SMNRs), and all the promises and alleged benefits constructing them would bring to Illinois.
Ignoring the facts that no SMNRs currently even exist except as design concepts and PowerPoint presentations, and none will be commercially available at scale until the 2030s at best (assuming the designs even work), legislators gushed over nonexistent job creation, alleged system reliability improvements, and hypothetical tax base and climate benefits. Absent was equal time, meaningful questioning and discussion, and thorough examination of any potential downsides of pinning Illinois' energy future on the dreams and fevered imaginings of an industry with a local and national reputation for political corruption, missed deadlines, perpetual cost overruns, and incessant ratepayer-funded bailouts (currently cumulatively valued at $43 billion nationally).
Make no mistake – more nuclear reactors of any kind in Illinois will mean more radioactive waste, more nuclear bailouts, more rate hikes, continued accident threat, and less renewable energy and efficiency.
Additionally troubling, introducing more reactors will have a profoundly negative effect on the renewable energy goals of the 2021 Climate and Equity Jobs Act (CEJA), which is already struggling towards implementation. Allowing construction of more reactors will create competition not only for electricity market share, but for the already highly constrained access to the transmission grid – a problem the legislature should have worked on more aggressively. You can build a million reactors or a million wind turbines, but if you can't deliver that power to customers, both are useless.
Pritzker's April statement was correct – we need to ensure we're not "opening this up to nuclear everywhere or every type of nuclear." He unfortunately finds himself in the tough political space of having to consider vetoing two pieces of legislation championed by the Democratic legislature, one whose 11th-hour political manipulations closely resemble the way the BMI ("Before-Madigan-Indictment") legislature operated.
Assuming the governor is a leader of his word, and wasn't just blowing political deflective smoke in April, his choice is clear – the nuclear moratorium repeal should be vetoed. At the very least, a state task force of experts on both sides of this issue should be convened to more thoroughly examine not just the implications of moratorium repeal, but of adding more reactors to a nuclear-glutted Illinois. This will determine whether Illinois' energy future will be renewable as intended in CEJA, or business-as-usual nuclear.
David Kraft is director of the Chicago-based Nuclear Energy Information Service.