Nuclear energy has always been divisive, and now the Russian invasion of Ukraine has intensified the debate.
Faced with soaring energy prices and a natural gas supplier like Russia that can’t be trusted, the United Kingdom has announced plans for building up to eight new reactors. France expects to continue much of its electricity from nuclear power, while Germany has pledged to continue phasing out its nuclear plants, resisting pressure to keep them in service.
As for the U.S., power generation from splitting atoms has declined in recent years, and more reactors are being retired than built.
If you’re in Illinois, however, you’re all-in on nuclear energy — for better or worse. Gov. J.B. Pritzker has made sure of that.
When the governor signed a sweeping energy plan last year, he committed the citizens of the state to extending the lives of three old nuclear plants that otherwise were due to be shut down. An estimated $700 million will go to the parent of scandal-plagued Commonwealth Edison, which has agreed to continue operating the unionized plants in exchange for the government bailout.
Do other states less invested in nuclear energy — or Germany, for that matter — know something Illinois doesn’t? Actually, no. The pros and cons are well understood, and they start with money.
For all the assurances about nuclear power plants being clean, efficient and reliable, they have proven to be expensive. They require a fortune upfront to build, cost overruns and delays are the norm and they’re especially uneconomical in states like Illinois where deregulation has made electricity prices uncertain.
Setting aside the slow motion damage from emissions at fossil fuel power plants, nuclear facilities are potentially much more dangerous. They create some of the deadliest waste imaginable and they are targets for terrorists and others looking to do harm.
If anyone needs a reminder, consider Chernobyl, site of history’s worst nuclear accident on an April evening 36 years ago, and still an active threat today. In the early stages of the Ukraine invasion, Russian forces occupied the site and scared all of Europe by cutting power to the plant and kicking up its radioactive soil.
Also consider Japan, which like Illinois had banked on atomic power until the 2011 earthquake and tsunami devastated its Fukushima nuclear plant. In the aftermath, nuclear energy has gone from supplying about 30% of the country’s electricity to just 7.5% as of 2019. Worldwide, the number of nuclear plants is down, and the share of power they generate has fallen to 10.3%, from a peak of 17.5% in the mid-1990s.
Nuclear plants are back in vogue today partly because of the impact of Russia’s war on energy prices, but even more so because they make electricity without releasing carbon into the atmosphere, which causes global warming. As the world races to reduce fossil fuel emissions, as it must, the risks of nuclear power are being reweighed.
In the U.K., which since the 1990s has reduced its reliance on nuclear power, a key goal is to roll out a new generation of smaller, cheaper reactors. Other countries are revisiting their nuclear power options as well, and the European Union, pressed by the rising influence of France, is angling to encourage investment by formally declaring reactors green.
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions that damage the climate was an important part of Pritzker’s energy package. He signed the legislation at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, presumably to suggest that he was saving the penguins as well as the union jobs at ComEd’s nuclear plants that were more relevant to the bill’s passage.
Despite the enormous subsidy for a utility that admitted to engineering a state government bribery scheme, other parts of the legislation show promise: Illinois is overdue on phasing out its dirty coal-fired power plants, which the law should finally accomplish. Promoting electric cars will help reduce emissions compared with gasoline-powered vehicles, even after accounting for the electricity used in charging.
As for the “atomic governor’s” role in ensuring Illinois remains wedded to nuclear power, the reality is that the state will have company. Nuclear power will be a part of the world’s energy mix for many years to come. It’s possible that innovators will find a responsible way to deal with radioactive waste and otherwise mitigate the risks. Investors are making new bets on a revival, and, like practically all commodity prices these days, uranium prices are soaring.
It’s too soon to declare a renaissance for nuclear power but keeping minds and options open makes sense for Illinois right now. Let’s cross our fingers that Pritzker’s $700 million payoff to a company that cheated the state for years at least delivers the juice.