Apart from any of their direct impact on the electrical grid, Exelon’s nuclear plants are almost inconceivable economic engines.
Take the Byron plant, which generated nearly $35 million in real estate taxes last year. The plant alone accounted for a third of Ogle County’s property tax revenue and a staggering 75% of the Byron School District’s budget.
The city of Byron doesn’t get a cent because the plant is outside the corporate boundary, but Mayor John Rickard said the population was 1,200 before the facility opened and it’s now 3,800 – more than triple the size. That means not just a housing boom, but significant growth in the retail and service economies and school enrollment, among other sectors.
Exelon wants to close the plant by this time next year, although it’s licensed to operate for another two decades.
It also wants to shutter the Dresden plant in Morris, displacing 1,500 full-time employees and ending opportunities for more than 2,000 temporary workers who flood the communities’ hotels, restaurants, gas stations and grocery stores during refueling outages.
The utility also said plants in La Salle and Will counties could be prematurely closed. It placed the blame on low energy prices and rules favoring fossil fuel generation plants.
The Exelon announcement understandably put government and economic development officials on high alert. U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Channahon, called the news a “gut punch.”
We could use another two-word phrase: déjà vu.
Exelon in 2014 threatened to close these and other plants. Two years later, state lawmakers approved a $2.35 billion subsidy for Exelon and all the sites were spared. Although that bailout is spread out over 10 years, we didn’t even make it through half before revisiting this familiar, frustrating face-off.
Things are different this time around. The plants are as important as ever economically, but the state and nation are under new management. And that 2016 legislation – was it above board? In July, federal prosecutors reached an agreement in which ComEd will pay $200 million as part of a deferred prosecution agreement linked to a “yearslong bribery scheme” that involves jobs and payments to people connected to House Speaker Michael Madigan.
And, ultimately, many of us are firmly in “fool me twice, shame on you” territory.
This is not to say a solution is impossible. But if the governor and lawmakers are going back to the negotiating table with Exelon, we’re going to need to see a dramatic increase in transparency and far more guarantees for not just the people who work at and live near these plants, but the population as a whole. Not just ComEd customers, who ultimately end up funding these bailouts through higher rates, but all Illinoisans who are fed up with being held hostage by one giant company at the expense of other pressing issues affecting every county.
There has to be a better way.