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Gov. Pritzker vetoes bill that would have allowed new nuclear construction

Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris
Andrew Adams
/
Capitol News Illinois
Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, watches on May 19 as the Senate votes on her bill lifting the state’s moratorium on nuclear plant construction.

Gov. JB Pritzker on Friday vetoed a bill that would have lifted a 1980s moratorium on the construction of new nuclear reactors.

The passed in May with three-fifths majorities in both legislative chambers, meaning that if all of the members that voted for it also support an override of the governor’s veto, it still could become law. Its Senate sponsor, state Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, said she has already filed paperwork to bring the bill up in the legislature’s fall veto session scheduled for late October and early November.

The governor said in a message to lawmakers explaining his veto that he did it “at the request of the leadership team of the Speaker of the House and advocates.”

While Pritzker said he saw “real potential” in small modular reactors, or SMRs – a type of “advanced” nuclear reactor that proponents tout as a path forward for the industry – he also said he doesn’t think the legislation goes far enough in regulating the nascent technology.

“This bill provides no regulatory protections for the health and safety of Illinois residents who would live and work around these new reactors,” Pritzker wrote. “My hope is that future legislation in Illinois regarding SMRs would address this regulation gap.”

The governor also cited an “overly broad definition of advanced reactor” in the bill that he said could “open the door to proliferation” of large-scale nuclear power plants, like the reactors at the state’s six existing generating stations.

Pritzker said these traditional reactors are “so costly to build that they will cause exorbitant ratepayer-funded bailouts.”

The bill would have allowed for the construction of reactors that meet the federal government’s definitionof “advanced reactor,” which require that fission reactors have “significant improvements” to things such as safety features and waste yields.

Rezin, in a phone interview with Capitol News Illinois, said Pritzker’s characterization of the bill allowing construction of traditional reactors is “just not true.”

“This is a pattern of a governor that is bending to special interests,” Rezin said.

Rezin also noted the limitation in the bill to only apply to advanced reactors came out of bipartisan negotiations.

“Advanced nuclear reactors would help supplement the flaws that wind and solar unfortunately have by providing reliable power 24/7, because wind and solar alone don’t have the infrastructure or technology to provide our state with the reliable, affordable and efficient energy it needs,” Rezin said in a news release.

Rezin’s claims about advanced nuclear reactors are contentious, particularly among some environmental advocates that have been leading voices in the push for carbon-free energy in Illinois.

On Tuesday, a pair of influential advocacy groups sent a letter to Pritzker asking him to veto the bill. The Sierra Club Illinois Chapter and the Illinois Environmental Council’s joint letter outlined several concerns, including waste disposal, costs and a lack of up-to-date regulation.

“Nuclear power comes with significant safety risks and results in highly hazardous wastes that threaten our drinking water, with no safe, permanent waste solution in sight,” IEC Executive Director Jen Walling said in a Friday news release. “Rather than abandon all safeguards, Gov. Pritzker recognized that such substantial risks merit the highest protective guardrails our state can offer.”

Waste was the central concern of the original moratorium, which will end when the head of the state’s Environmental Protection Agency finds the federal government has “identified and approved” a method for the disposal of high-level nuclear waste, a responsibility the federal government has failed to successfully act on.

Currently, nuclear waste is stored on-site at the plant that produced it. But in the 1970s and 80s, a facility outside of Morris, Illinois, became home to waste from California, Minnesota, Nebraska and Connecticut, making Grundy County the nation’s only de facto high-level storage site.

Rezin defended her proposal on the subject of waste as well, pointing out in an interview that companies building nuclear reactors must submit plans for waste management when they apply for permits.

“This is a very heavily regulated industry by the federal government,” Rezin said.

Beyond waste, environmental advocates also say that focusing on nuclear power diverts attention and resources away from the development of wind, solar and battery storage technology.

“SB76 would have opened the door to increased risk, negative environmental impacts, and higher costs for consumers while jeopardizing our progress toward Illinois’ clean energy future,” Sierra Club Illinois Director Jack Darin said in a Friday news release.

The nuclear moratorium does not affect research reactors, like the one under development at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

In addition to this bill, the governor on Friday also vetoed a measure that would have required the state to implement a contract to provide religious dietary options in schools, which Pritzker rejected because food service contracts are a district-level responsibility. Pritzker also used his amendatory veto powers to modify two bills that have to do with property taxes and government procurement.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of print and broadcast outlets statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide, as well as hundreds of radio and TV stations. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. Email Andrew Adams: aadams@capitolnewsillinois.com