Quick Action is Needed to Save Illinois’ Nuclear Plants

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Energy Fairness has consistently argued in favor of keeping existing nuclear plants online to fight climate change while keeping costs in check. After all, nuclear power is highly reliable and carbon-free. Despite our arguments, several U.S. nuclear plants will be closed over the next few years. Exelon is on track to take its Byron and Dresden nuclear stations in Illinois offline next, likely resulting in higher costs for consumers. But there is still hope that these plants won’t end up on the chopping block. 

We recently wrote about the closure of Indian Point in New York and the looming closure of Diablo Canyon in California. Like the Byron and Dresden facilities, policymakers pushed the closure of these facilities without a viable alternative to replace the carbon-free power these plants produce. That strategy would seem counterproductive to the Biden Administration’s emission reduction goals.  Nuclear still provides more than half of all carbon-free electricity produced in the U.S.each year.  

If the plants close, it won’t be easy to replace Byron and Dresden’s combined annual 4.3 GW (one-gigawatt powers approximately 300,000 homes) of electricity. Replacing carbon-free nuclear power with carbon-free renewables and storage will be even more challenging. And more expensive. How expensive? Exelon CEO Chris Crane says that making that transition could cost $80 billion. That money will fall on the backs of Illinois consumers in the form of higher power bills. 

Fortunately, policymakers seem to have received the message that nuclear is a crucial part of any plan to decarbonize the power sector. State lawmakers are working on an approach to keep them open. However, a proposal from Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker has been called “inadequate” by Exelon officials. Illinois legislators are now working on a new package of bills to keep the plants open, but time is running out to get them finished before the legislative session ends on May 31. 

There is precedent for lawmakers to save nuclear plants from being shut down prematurely.  Regulators in New Jersey recently decided to extend zero-emission certificates to the state’s Hope Creek and Salem plants. The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities noted that the plants were critical for meeting the state’s emission goals.  It simply made no sense to unduly burden consumers by building more expensive types of carbon-free power generation. 

Hopefully, lawmakers in Illinois will follow New Jersey’s lead before the end of the legislative session. “We’ve been advocating for policy changes in Illinois for more than two years because I feel we have a duty to our customers to preserve every opportunity … and to keep these critical energy resources running. But we’re almost out of time, and we’ll prematurely retire these assets in the fall if the policy reforms are not passed in this session,” Crane said.

“However, the details really matter. A bill needs to pass before the end of the regular session, and it needs to provide adequate support for continuing to invest in the Illinois fleet,” he continued.

Closing existing nuclear plants is the wrong move for reducing carbon and for consumers. Even President Biden’s chief climate advisor, Gina McCarthy, recently stated, “Nuclear power is zero carbon and it is an important part of the baseload for many states.”

There are less than two weeks before the end of the Illinois legislative session.  Time is of the essence.  We hope lawmakers act quickly to preserve the state’s nuclear power infrastructure.  These carbon-free facilities will play an invaluable role in meeting Illinois carbon reduction goals for many years to come.