Nuclear Renaissance: Illinois Lawmakers Consider Lifting a 23-Year-Old Moratorium on New Reactors

Jul 1, 2010

Dry casks containing radioactive waste
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
After the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island disasters, public support for nuclear power dropped precipitously. But in recent years, increased demand for electricity and concerns over carbon emissions that contribute to global warming have led to a so-called nuclear renaissance.

Illinois lawmakers are considering lifting a moratorium on building new nuclear reactors that has been in place since 1987. The state is not alone. Half of the dozen or so states that placed holds on new nuclear facilities are rethinking those decisions. But the biggest question facing nuclear expansion is also the one the public is most concerned with: Where will the waste go? 

Illinois’ moratorium was originally meant to stay in place until the federal government came up with an answer to the waste storage issue, but that solution has not materialized. Some Illinois lawmakers are growing impatient and say the state is missing out on jobs and federal funding associated with the construction of new nuclear plants. The Illinois Senate voted to lift the ban this spring legislative session. The House has yet to take up Senate Bill 3388

After touting nuclear power during his campaign for the presidency as part of a mix of options the country would need to cut carbon emissions, President Barack Obama quashed plans to create an underground repository for the long-term storage of the nation’s radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. 

The 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act charged the federal government with finding a place to store spent fuel, as well as waste from the production of nuclear weapons. However, as of yet, no permanent option exists for storing waste in the country. Amendments to the act in 1987 gave the Department of Energy (DOE) “the responsibility to locate, build and operate a repository for such wastes” and designated Yucca Mountain as the primary site to be studied as the potential repository, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regula- tory Commission.

Obama’s critics have called his efforts to undermine the Yucca Mountain plan, including cutting the majority of funding to the project in his 2011 budget, politically motivated. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid from Nevada has long fought to keep the repository out of his state, which has no nuclear plants. Nevada does use electricity generated by nuclear plants in nearby states. 

However, individuals on both sides of the issue agree the site was chosen without allowing enough input from Nevada citizens and is now off the table for the foreseeable future. 

“One thing we learned from Yucca Mountain is that you can’t jam a storage facility down anyone’s throat. I think the lesson from that is these facilities will need local support,” says Tom Kauffman, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group based in Washington, D.C. 

Other countries have been able to overcome the not-in-my-back-yard fears of residents and have built underground storage facilities. Finland’s repository is set to be operational in 2020. Sweden’s is estimated to open in 2023, and France, a leader in nuclear power technology, plans to open its repository in 2025. 

“Sweden is building one now. Why can’t we do that?” asks William Roy, a senior geochemist with the Illinois State Geological Survey. He says Sweden involved citizens in the process and, in the end, different areas were competing to be chosen as the storage site. 

While European countries may be having more luck sorting out what to do with radioactive waste in the long term, American environmentalists say expansion of the nation’s nuclear capacity before the question of permanent storage is tackled would simply be bad planning. “Would they have built the Sears Tower without bathrooms?” asks David Kraft, director of the Nuclear Energy Information Service, a Chicago-based watchdog group. 

According to the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club, no changes that would prompt a need to lift the ban have taken place since state lawmakers passed the 1987 moratorium on new reactors. 

Illinois power plants currently keep waste on site. It is kept underwater in spent fuel pools for about five years so it can cool off. Then it is moved to large containers known as dry casks. 

Kraft says the casks raise security issues, especially since some are in the flight path of Illinois airports. He says they could be targets for terrorist attacks, possibly even intentional plane crashes. “We’re concerned that they are just lining [casks] up like bowling pins,” Kraft says. 

Roy, who also teaches a class on radioactive waste storage at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, says the casks are nearly indestructible. He says they survive such rigorous tests as collisions with trains and trucks, as well as being set on fire for hours. “The train is destroyed; the dry storage cask is dented.” He says that is the case with all the tests he has seen. “[The casks] are dented. They’re blackened, but they are not breached.”

Those opposing new reactors are also concerned that Illinois could become a “dumping ground” for waste from other states. Kraft says relying on cask storage could lead the DOE to opt for a system of regional storage centers “while they are looking around for a suitable hole in the ground” for a repository. 

He says Illinois would likely be the center for storage in the Midwest. Because Illinois, the top generator of nuclear power in the country, has more waste to deal with, it would make sense to send in waste from other states to keep here because it would mean moving less of it around. Kraft says Illinois infrastructure, including the possibility of train and barge transport, would also make the state an obvious choice for such a facility. 

According to a 2009 UIUC study called “‘Plan D’ for Spent Nuclear Fuel,” Illinois now stores waste from California, Connecticut, Minnesota and Nebraska. “We are already storing spent fuel from other states. It’s already happening, and the world hasn’t ended,” says Roy, one of the authors of the study. 

The one thing both sides can see eye to eye on is that the casks are a temporary fix. “I don’t think anyone maintains that is a permanent solution. I think it is a short term solution to a bad situation,” says Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club Illinois Chapter.

Kauffman agrees. “There does need to be a repository. There has to be.”

Environmentalists say the storage problem should put the brakes on expansion plans. But many scientists and those in the industry say building new plants will take time, and they have years to catch up on storage solutions. 

“We should not hold back. We have the smarts and the experience [to find solutions.] … It takes awhile to build a nuclear plant. So we’ve got time, really,” Roy says. 

No companies currently have plans to construct a new reactor. However, the majority of the Illinois Senate agrees they should have the option. “At the end of the day, you can spend your life worrying about imaginary horribles. Or you can spend your time moving your community forward and your state forward. We all have to heat our houses. We all have to drive our cars,” says Sen. Mike Jacobs, a sponsor of SB 3388

Jacobs, a Democrat from East Moline, says he has a personal interest in the safety precautions that Illinois plants take. “I live 32 miles from a nuclear plant, and I want to be safe, too. … I want to make sure that if I am pushing something that has a downside, that we do everything in our power to minimize the downside.”

Jacobs, who also sponsored stricter regulations for the industry, says it is impeccable safety standards that will guarantee the future of nuclear power by fostering a positive public perception. He encourages those unsure about lifting the ban to visit an Illinois plant. “You get to see how much care and how much thought is given to protecting not only the community but the people that work inside these buildings.”

Roy says public perception may be the largest hurdle for nuclear expansion. “One of the biggest issues is the emotional reaction to it — the fear of the unknown.”

Darin says it is unfair to expect those residing near power plants to live with the fact that spent fuel may be stored there for years, something to which they never agreed. “It is unacceptable that this waste has piled up in our communities [because] there is currently no safe place to put it,” he says. 

Jacobs says the potentially positive effects that new reactors could have in Illinois, such as job creation and economic development, outweigh the negatives. Darin says he understands it is difficult in a recession for politicians to turn their backs on “anything that sounds like it creates lots of jobs. We can understand the desire for anything that will create jobs in Illinois.” He adds that “green” energy projects, such as wind farms, are bringing new jobs to the state now. 

“We are creating lots of jobs in renewable energy in Illinois, and I think that is proving to be a very successful pollution-free way to add energy in our grid.”

Darin says his organization is not “ruling out” nuclear power as a viable way to address global warming in the future. But he says that storage solutions must be found. “We have to solve the waste problem before we make it worse.” 

In the meantime, he says, renewable sources are starting to take off and deserve focus and funding. “If we were to make a push for new nuclear, that would take so much money and attention away from these clean, safe job creators that have gotten off to a good start,” he says. 

But some claim just the opposite — renewable generation has a long way to go before it can be counted upon, and strides to cut carbon emissions must be done quickly with a known reliable energy source such as nuclear power. “We don’t disfavor alternate forms of energy, but frankly, the wind doesn’t blow everyday,” Roy says. 

“Nuclear at this point is by far your single largest supply of CO2-free electricity,” says Kauffman. 

A 2009 update to a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, titled “The Future of Nuclear Power,” warns that if the country takes too long to expand its nuclear capacity, then a shift will do little to slow global warming. “The sober warning is that if more is not done, nuclear power will diminish as a practical and timely option for deployment at a scale that would constitute a material contribution to climate change risk mitigation.”

Those in the industry are awaiting the findings of a blue ribbon commission appointed by Obama. The group is scheduled to make its final recommendations on managing the nation’s nuclear waste in January 2012. 

“There’s light at the end of the tunnel because now we are seeing movement on the national level,” Kauffman says. “I think they will come back with recommendations on what makes sense at this point.”

Kauffman says there are no guarantees that new reactors would come to Illinois. He says pushes for nuclear expansion are often backed by increased demand for electricity in a given area, and demand is down in the Midwest. “You have ample energy sources in your region.”

Kraft says there is no urgency to expand nuclear power in Illinois. “The practical standpoint of doing anything in the short term is just a zero. It’s nothing. It doesn’t even make sense.” 

He is gearing up to fight the lift of the ban again during the legislature’s fall veto session. “We have been warned already by some leadership that next time it will be back.”

Jacobs is confident the moratorium will be lifted soon because he says his proposal has popular support. “Eventually, that bill will make its way to the floor of the Illinois House, and when it does, it will pass. And when it does, it is because the people of Illinois support it.”

Illinois Issues, July/August 2010