As an ardent supporter of innovative clean energy technology, it is very satisfying to see that Illinois, like my home state of Iowa, has grown its clean energy capacity by adding wind and solar into its energy mix.
That being said, many in the Illinois legislature have failed to acknowledge their state is one of the leading producers of clean energy — as they have yet to embrace nuclear energy as clean energy. And the proposed closures of the Quad Cities and Clinton Generation stations mark a step backwards for Illinois’ clean energy revolution.
After the first commercial nuclear power generation facility opened as part of President Dwight Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program, opportunities for atomic research increased dramatically. Now, after almost 70 years, there are 104 nuclear reactors are harnessing the same atomic fission that now provides three times more electricity than wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, and all other non-hydropower renewable sources combined; while reliably meeting nearly one-fifth of our country’s commercial energy needs.
Due to our long history in this sector, the U.S. has a large competitive and technological advantage harnessing nuclear energy, and during my time working in the Obama Administration, as an official at the Department of Commerce, I took pride in promoting our civil nuclear technology as an export to enthusiastic customers around the world including in Eastern Europe, South East Asia and the Middle East.
When we export this U.S. technology to our partners, it has the potential to create thousands of American jobs and maintain our geopolitical balance of power. That said, it has been disheartening to see the dramatic halt in domestic construction of new nuclear power generating plants since the 1980s.
So why have nearly one-tenth of the active nuclear generation plants in the United States been slated for retirement since 2013?
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Innovations in energy efficient homes, office buildings, and manufacturing plants are one factor; but, disproportionate tax incentives encouraging the construction of other clean energy infrastructure, combined with an unbalanced regulatory framework for the nuclear industry has created this downturn in construction.
While all renewable energy production should be encouraged, no single factor has transformed our domestic energy economy, and squeezed nuclear energy generation more than the fracking boom that has depressed energy prices.
Sadly, when Exelon, the largest U.S. generator of nuclear energy, scuttles two plants in Illinois as a direct result of competition from renewable energy and cheap natural gas, it will take with it $1.2 billion in annual economic activity and as many as 4,200 direct and indirect jobs. This trend should make advocates for manufacturing jobs and clean energy nervous as it may continue to populate unemployment lines while we are still climbing out of the “Great Recession.”
In Illinois, nuclear power accounts for 92 percent of its carbon-free energy production and almost half of its total energy production. When plants like Quad-Cities and Clinton close, that gap is not going to be filled by wind or solar, but rather, carbon-emitting energy sources. This marks a giant step backward for the progress the clean energy movement has made in Illinois over the past decade.
Running away from clean civil nuclear technology at this time is not the answer. Paving the way for the carbon-free energy grid of the future starts by embracing the clean energy technology we have harnessed and relied upon for decades.
That said, the Illinois Legislature and Gov. Bruce Rauner should take a page from the Clean Energy Standard developed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and move swiftly to embrace clean, carbon-free nuclear power in Illinois’ proposed “Next Generation Energy Plan.”
If Illinois is serious about maintaining and creating clean energy jobs and moving towards a net-zero carbon footprint and it should buck the trend of nuclear power generating plant closures and embrace nuclear power as one of the cleanest energy sources the United States has to offer.
Kevin Gluba is executive director of the Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure.