The first thing you learn when you pull up to the Quad-Cities Nuclear Generation Station is how much has changed since Sept. 11, 2001.
The entrance is as carefully secured as any border crossing and what was once a parking lot is now walled off with guard towers in all directions.
Once inside – after hand prints, IDs and background checks – it feels like the safest place on earth. Everything there is measured and marked and monitored, a reminder that the power source comes at its root from atoms splitting, something to be treated with awe and respect.
The men who gave three members of the Quad-City Times editorial board a tour that day spoke to us of nuclear energy with the professional giddiness that you see in people who love what they do, men spending their lives near the outer limits of our scientific understanding, men connected to far flung parts of Russia and Central Asia through the limited uranium market, men who chose interesting lives.
We stood at the edge of a large open room looking down on the spent fuel pools and their excitement was contagious. But so was their anxiety.
We were invited to this thick-walled place to see the station, but also to see the faces. I knew that a number of Illinois lawmakers and leadership had stood in that exact spot days before, watching men in protective suits and listening to a description of how the storage water is purified.
It was a last ditch effort to convince anyone with influence or a vote to cast that the 800 jobs at the Quad-Cities Generation Station were worth saving.
We stopped in the control room, standing with our feet behind the line drawn in the carpet, while men who grew up in the Quad-Cities worried about what it would be like to leave and build a new life somewhere far away.
They did the right thing – politically – letting us hear those voices. All politics are personal, but some are more personal than others, depending on what you stand to lose.
On Thursday afternoon and then into the evening, we listened to the live stream of the debate on Illinois House floor and then in the Senate. Dan Petrella, our reporter in Springfield, and Editorial Page Editor Jon Alexander tweeted highlights from the discussion for those who weren’t in a position to listen.
Half-way through the day, Gov. Rauner announced that he didn’t like the bill anymore. The Quad-Cities Chamber of Commerce blasted out an email with Rauner’s phone number and examples of what to say to lobby for the bill’s passage.
Editors gathered in the newsroom and came up with a skeleton of a plan for the next day – one plan if the bill passed, one if it didn’t. If it didn’t pass, there would be ripple effects to cover for months – school budget struggles, Rock Island County losing its largest taxpayer, 800 high-paying jobs to be phased out of the area, hundreds of homes saturating the real estate market, families packing, and a small town doomed to take its place in a future of “remember when” stories.
It was the third time in a month we’ve stood in the Quad-City Times newsroom on pins and needles awaiting the last-minute outcome. We wrung our hands through a rain delay at the tail-end of Game 7. We watched delegate number tick up, one state at a time, as we wondered who would be our next president. And now this, pacing the room while the future of our community’s economy hung on a few votes.
In the last hours, it seemed as if it would go the way of all recent Illinois political contests, pulled to shreds by the Rauner and Madigan tug-of-war.
When the Senate approved the bill about 7 p.m. Thursday, I felt a wave of relief that we wouldn’t have to write those stories or take that photo of the line of loaded moving trucks.
I thought for a moment of the people I saw in the Cordova station and I thought of the sound of the place as you walk between the buildings – a loud crackling sound of electricity leaving the station and joining the grid, a sound that will continue.