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Illinois lawmakers approve plan to allow small-scale nuclear development

Rep. Lance Yednock, D-Ottawa, and Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, watch as the final vote is counted for their bill that would partially lift the state’s moratorium on nuclear reactor construction.
Andrew Adams/Capitol News Illinois
Rep. Lance Yednock, D-Ottawa, and Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, watch as the final vote is counted for their bill that would partially lift the state’s moratorium on nuclear reactor construction.

Lawmakers on Thursday approved a proposal that would allow companies to develop new nuclear power generation in Illinois for the first time since 1987.

House Bill 2473 does not entirely lift the 36-year-old moratorium on nuclear construction. Instead, it creates a regulatory structure for the construction of small modular nuclear reactors, or SMRs.

The bill limits the nameplate capacity of such reactors to 300 megawatts, about one-third the size of the smallest of the six existing nuclear power plants in Illinois. It also requires the state to perform a study that will inform rules for regulating SMRs, which will be adopted by regulators at the Illinois Emergency Management Agency by January 2026.

Proponents of the measure say it is a step to make the ongoing transition away from fossil fuels more reliable for customers throughout the state, while opponents warn the unproven technology comes with safety risks and the potential for cost overruns.

The bill passed with bipartisan support in the Senate, 44-7, and the House, 98-8. The opposition came exclusively from Democrats.

Gov. JB Pritzker said in a statement Thursday that he would sign the bill. He worked with lawmakers on the new language of the new bill after vetoing a broader measure this summer.

Leadership of the Illinois AFL-CIO umbrella labor organization released a statement Thursday calling the policy an “important for our state’s economy and our clean energy future.”

It echoed a release from the Illinois Manufacturers Association, an industry advocacy group that testified in support of the proposal several times, saying that it would allow the state to “continue leading in energy and manufacturing innovation.”

The legislation’s sponsors, Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, and Rep. Lance Yednock, D-Ottawa, said the bill has the potential to bolster Illinois’ electric reliability as intermittent sources like wind and solar begin to make up a larger portion of the state’s energy output.

“In order to reach our clean energy goals, we may have to invest in more nuclear generated carbon-free energy,” Yednock said. “The policy does not subtract from the growth of wind and solar energy; it could be an enhancement, as a potential use of small modular reactors could be to energize large manufacturers, therefore keeping more traditional new sources of energy for residential, small commercial customers and our future [electric vehicle] needs.”

Rezin noted that she is particularly interested in the potential for SMRs to be developed at the sites of former coal plants in Illinois, avoiding the need to build new transmission lines, although that process could take many years.

Because permitting nuclear energy takes many years at the federal level, the earliest a nuclear project could be brought online in Illinois would be in the 2030s.

Environmental, safety issues

Critics of the bill and of nuclear power remain worried about its implications.

David Kraft, an outspoken critic of nuclear energy and head of the Chicago-based advocacy group Nuclear Energy Information Service, urged lawmakers at a Thursday committee meeting to reject the bill.

Kraft said he was concerned about the lack of existing SMR installations and the unproven nature of the technology. While some nuclear reactors of this scale do exist in other countries, no commercial SMRs have ever been built in the United States.

“This isn’t an energy policy, it’s a Las Vegas craps shoot,” he said during the committee hearing.

In a follow-up interview, Kraft said that SMRs bring with them security concerns, as the smaller installations have different staffing requirements than traditional reactors and use a more highly enriched type of uranium. This relative abundance of this uranium, according to Kraft, could incentivize the further proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Some environmentalists also lined up against the bill, worrying that investment in nuclear could take away from investments into renewable energy technology. Sierra Club Illinois chapter director Jack Darin called nuclear energy “at best, a distraction.” Sierra Club was one of the main advocacy organizations that sought Pritzker’s veto of the previous bill.

While the Sierra Club remained opposed to the updated version of the bill, the Illinois Environmental Council – which co-signed a letter requesting the August veto with the Sierra Club – adopted a neutral position on the new bill before it was approved on Thursday.

Rep. Lilian Jimenez, D-Chicago, was one of the eight House Democrats who voted against the bill on Thursday. She said that there had not been enough study of the potential drawbacks of SMR development in the state.

“Illinois has plenty of time to assess the risks and costs before opening the door to these projects,” Jimenez said during floor debate. “I believe we should be focusing on that piece before taking this huge leap and this huge step.”

Industry issues

Since 2016, five other state legislatures have either repealed or weakened their bans on nuclear construction. Counting Illinois, bans on nuclear construction remain on the books in 11 states.

Several of the states that have lifted their bans in recent years have done so to pave the way for SMR technology. But the biggest player in that industry has seen several upsets in recent weeks.

As lawmakers debated the bill on Wednesday, NuScale Power – the only company with a federally approved SMR design – announced that it was canceling its highly watched “Carbon Free Power Project” in Utah, which would have been the first commercial project with a NuScale reactor.

The project’s cancelation comes after months of falling stock prices and criticism from trading firms. Still, its leaders say the company will continue with its other projects, which are at various steps of regulation and planning.

“NuScale will continue with our other domestic and international customers to bring our American SMR technology to market and grow the U.S. nuclear manufacturing base,” NuSCale CEO John Hopkins said in a Wednesday news release.

Rezin noted that “there’s a lot to learn” from NuScale’s canceled project, but hopes Illinois’ and other states’ moves to reverse their construction bans will encourage nuclear energy development in the U.S.

“If we do not build out this technology with companies that are in the United States, there’s other companies and countries such as Russia that are looking to sell that technology,” she said. “We don’t want that.”

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of print and broadcast outlets statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

Andrew Adams joined Capitol News Illinois in February 2023 as a state government and data reporter.
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