CORDOVA — Although Exelon is taking steps to close two of its Illinois nuclear plants — including one in Quad-Cities — company officials said the decision could be reversed if state lawmakers approve an energy reform bill by September when the utility must purchase nuclear fuel for the reactor.
"The sense of urgency to get legislation passed is that we have to make a decision in September how much fuel we going to buy," Quad-Cities plant spokesman Bill Stoermer said Friday.
"We have to make the decision if we are going to buy one year's worth of fuel vs. two years," he told nearly three dozen retirees gathered at the Cordova plant for a previously scheduled update. The station meets twice a year with retirees to keep them informed of plant activities.
The meeting came a day after Exelon Corp. announced that it intends to close the two money-losing plants in the wake of no movement on a proposed energy reform bill in the Illinois Legislature. The Clinton (Illinois) Power Station would close first on June 1, 2017, and the Quad-Cities Generating Station would close June 1, 2018.
"If we're only going to run until 2018, we only want to put one year of fuel in Unit 1 reactor," Stoermer said. "Normally, we'd buy two years' worth of fuel. Unit 2 was just refueled this year, so it will run two years until 2018."
But if the legislation does not pass, the Quad-City station would choose to purchase one year worth of fuel to last until the proposed closing date. Clinton, which just refueled this year, would have enough fuel in its reactor to operate until 2017.
"They are not planning to repurchase because they have enough to last for the time until it closes," he said. If the decision is made to run the plant beyond 2017, "they would have to make a decision this year to purchase more fuel."
Payroll and nuclear fuel are the plant's largest expenses, he said.
Stoermer and Plant Manager Ken Ohr briefed the roomful of retirees on the decision announced Thursday as well as efforts to push the legislation through, challenges facing the plant and plant improvements in the past year.
"We are two of the best-performing plants in Illinois and had two record-setting outages in the industry, yet these are the two plants we announced we are closing," Stoermer said.
The Cordova plant recently completed a fuel outage in 18 days and 14 hours, the shortest duration for a refueling outage in the plant's history, he said. Clinton's refueling outage was completed in nine days, "the best outage in the world."
According to Stoermer, the goal is to keep the reactor online as much as possible and the outages as short as possible. The Cordova plant runs at about 95 percent capacity, meaning it is producing electricity 95 percent of the time.
"We are running more reliably than any plant, yet we are having these discussions (on closing)," Ohr told the retirees. "This is a people issue. It isn't that we don't know how to run a plant. We are running the best in the world.
"You all remember 60 percent capacity days," he said, crediting the improved performance to advanced equipment, processes and training as well as significant capital investments.
But because of an uncompetitive pricing structure in Illinois, Stoermer said, the Cordova station alone stands to lose $140 million in the next year "if we don't get the legislation."
According to Ohr, those opposing the Next Generation Energy Plan don't oppose the legislation. Instead, "they want a piece of it."
Exelon has said the proposed legislation would create a zero-emission electrical plan for Illinois and not all energy producers would qualify because they are not zero-emission, including coal.
Ohr added that the bill would retain $1.2 billion in economic activity generated by the Cordova and Clinton plants, add $1 billion in low-income assistance funding and release $140 million to solar and wind.
Retirees posed questions about who is to blame for the legislation failing to gain approval, what support it has in Springfield and what they can do to help.
"I think we have the votes," Ohr said.
But Stoermer described a tough situation in Springfield with budget issues and partisan haggling. He did say Exelon was "encouraged" by Gov. Bruce Rauner's remarks in East Moline on Thursday when he pledged to work with Exelon.
"It was the first time he made some of these statements," he said.
Many of the retirees already have been part of the efforts to lobby for the legislation, writing letters and emails, attending a rally in Springfield and informing others about the issue.
Doug Thompson, a retired security director, said he uses the analogy of a car dealer to describe Exelon's situation with its unprofitable plants.
"Say you've got a guy who owns a half dozen car lots and he has four out of six that are profitable but two are in a region that are not making money," he said. "Overall, his business is doing very well, but if he gets rid of the two that are not profitable, his business becomes much more healthy."
Thompson, who now lives in Daytona Beach, Florida, and spends summers on a boat in Davenport's Lindsay Park harbor, said Exelon "owes it to its shareholders and the general public to do everything it can to be profitable."
Curtis Smith, who retired in 1999 as executive assistant to the plant manager, has followed the situation closely living nearby in Albany, Illinois, and with a son as an Exelon employee.
"I'm astonished they (the plant) can be played like a football," he said. "I'm pretty disappointed in Springfield."
But beyond his concerns for his family's livelihood and the region, Smith also worries about what the implications of taking all that energy offline. "I'm afraid we'll be left with not enough power to attract businesses to Illinois."
Ohr told the crowd that he hopes Exelon "will find a solution so I can be the next generation sitting in these seats."
Exelon had said it needed Illinois to pass a bill by May 31, which was the end of the spring session, to avoid making a decision to close Quad-Cities and Clinton. But the Senate adjourned without taking action, and the House now is meeting only on Wednesdays in June.
"One of our concerns is what happens if it passes the House and Senate and the governor says he won't sign anything until we have a budget," Stoermer said. "Or if he vetoes it, then we have to start all over."