Illinois plants to continue operating as energy bill is passed

14 September 2021

Exelon Generation is preparing to refuel its Byron and Dresden nuclear plants after the Illinois Senate passed a comprehensive energy package that, amongst other things, will create a process for the state to procure carbon mitigation credits from nuclear plants as the state aims to reach net zero emissions by 2050. The Byron plant had been scheduled to permanently shut down from today had the bill not been passed.

Byron: set to close this week had the bill not been passed (Image: Exelon)

Senate Bill 2408, which was passed by 37 votes to 17, promotes jobs and lowers carbon emissions by scaling up renewables, investing in electrification and adopting critical job training programs and labour standards, Exelon said yesterday. The bill will also mitigate "widely acknowledged flaws" in regional energy markets and compensate nuclear plants for their clean-energy benefits "in much the same way that wind and solar are compensated today," the company said.

"We commend the Governor, the General Assembly, our partners at [trade union] IBEW Local 15 and the coalition of labour leaders and members who worked so hard to pass this roadmap for rebuilding our economy and addressing the climate crisis by investing in clean energy in a way that ensures that jobs and environmental benefits are shared equitably," Exelon President and CEO Christopher Crane said. "This new policy offers a better future for the employees who have run these plants at world-class levels, the plant communities that we are privileged to serve and all Illinoisans eager to build a clean-energy economy that works for everyone."

Illinois Governor JB Pritzker said the state was "making history" with the passage of the bill. "After years of debate and discussion, science has prevailed, and we are charting a new future that works to mitigate the impacts of climate change here in Illinois," he said. "I look forward to signing this historic measure into law as soon as possible, because our planet and the people of Illinois ought not wait any longer."

Exelon Generation will move to immediately fill hundreds of vacant positions and resume capital projects required for long-term operation once the bill is signed into law, the company said.

Dresden and Byron are amongst the safest, most efficient and reliable nuclear units in the USA, but despite this face revenue shortfalls in the hundreds of millions of dollars because of market rules that allow fossil fuel plants to underbid clean resources in regional electricity markets, Exelon said. In addition to Byron and Dresden - which had been slated to retire in November - the legislation creates an opportunity to preserve the Braidwood nuclear plant, which also is economically challenged and at imminent risk of premature retirement. The LaSalle nuclear plant also will remain operating for the five-year duration of the carbon mitigation credit programme, Exelon said.

"By supporting these always-on, zero carbon nuclear plants, the legislation ensures that Illinois stays on track to meet its climate goals at the lowest cost to consumers," the company said, adding that Byron alone generates 30% more clean energy than comes from all the solar and wind ever built in Illinois.

Maria Korsnick, CEO of the US Nuclear Energy Institute, commended Illinois' policymakers for their leadership and action. "Today's legislative decision comes at a critical time as Illinois looks to achieve its clean energy goals," she said. "The decision signals the state's strong commitment to deep decarbonization, and once signed into law by the Governor, will secure the future of our nuclear power plants - providing affordable, carbon-free electricity, creating thousands of high-quality jobs and contributing billions of dollars to the communities they serve."

Exelon had said it would retire the two-unit Byron and Dresden nuclear power plants this year if the state did not pass policy reforms to support their continued operation by the end of the legislative session, which had been due on 31 May. The session was subsequently extended, but although a verbal agreement on the nuclear portion of the bill had reportedly been reached, legislators failed to pass the bill when they returned to vote on it in June. Last week, the company said it could not postpone a decision to refuel or retire Byron beyond 13 September.

"For over two years, we have spent countless hours fighting to preserve our state's entire nuclear fleet," Illinois Senator Sue Rezin said yesterday. "While I don't agree with everything that is included in Senate Bill 2408, it does keep our nuclear plants online, saves thousands of jobs, and puts our state on a realistic path to 100% clean, carbon-free energy. Without this bill, any hope of bringing a carbon-free energy future to Illinois by 2050 would be all but impossible and thousands of good-paying jobs would be lost throughout our state.

Sama Bilbao y León, director general of World Nuclear Association, said: "We applaud the leadership of the Illinois policymakers and governor for developing clean energy legislation that recognises the value of all low-carbon energy technologies, including nuclear energy. Because these plants can remain in operation, they will continue to deliver large amounts of low-carbon generation. Maintaining and extending the operation of existing nuclear plants is the most cost-effective way of delivering additional low-carbon electricity. It is also great news for the local communities around these plants. The plants will continue to provide high-quality employment and support their economies.”

Byron's pressurised water reactors began commercial operation in 1985 (unit 1) and 1987 (unit 2), and are currently licensed by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to operate until 2044 and 2046, respectively. Dresden is home to two boiling water reactors which began commercial operation in 1970 (unit 2) and 1971 (unit 3). Their respective operating licences expire in 2029 and 2031.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News