Illinois’ power struggle: Environmental advocates split on legislation to lift nuclear ban

The closed Zion Nuclear Power Plant, along Lake Michigan, is currently used to cool spent nuclear fuel. The question of what to do with such waste is at the center of ongoing legislative discussions to potentially lift Illinois' ban on building new nuclear power sites.

Nuclear power generates the majority of Illinois’ electricity, and some state representatives are hoping it will account for even more in the future.

Legislation that would lift a 30-year moratorium on building new nuclear sites is awaiting action in the Illinois House. Although it’s strongly supported by some climate advocates, others say the risks of nuclear power outweigh its carbon-free emissions.

Illinois gets a much larger percentage of its electricity from nuclear power than other states do, and therefore it relies on it more to hit its climate goals, namely reaching 100% clean energy by 2050. As part of the massive climate legislation package that lawmakers passed in 2021, the state agreed to pay up to $694 million over five years to keep a handful of nuclear plants open. The state currently has six plants.

While nuclear energy is not a source that everyone supports as a long-term climate solution because of waste and other concerns, proponents say it’s the best option in terms of cost and reliability.

“The tide is turning on nuclear,” said Madison Hilly, executive director of advocacy group Campaign for a Green Nuclear Deal. “There are new nuclear companies that states are trying to win investment from because they want those projects and those jobs in their communities. Right now Illinois is being overlooked, both by the Department of Energy and by these new companies, because there’s a ban.”

Currently, 12 states have restrictions on the construction of new nuclear power facilities, down from 16 after several states repealed long-standing bans in the past several years, including Wisconsin, Indiana and Kentucky.

Illinois’ bill to lift the moratorium, SB76, was passed by the Senate in a 39-13 bipartisan vote in March. The House now has until May 12 to call the legislation for its required third reading, and until May 19 to pass it on to the governor for consideration.

Alan Medsker, the Illinois director for Campaign for a Green Nuclear Deal, added that the bill wouldn’t guarantee new nuclear power in Illinois. It would simply open the door for those discussions.

State Rep. Mark Walker, an Arlington Heights Democrat who is a chief sponsor of the legislation, said the bill is “all about the environment.”

“I really am committed to trying to save the earth from a changing climate, and I really am committed to energy without carbon dioxide,” he said. “I personally am very suspicious that we can make our clean air goals and our global warming goals without a baseline of nuclear energy.”

Walker said the primary concern he’s heard from fellow lawmakers and constituents is about nuclear waste: what to do with it, how long it will remain and what potential dangers it poses.

Indeed, both proponents and opponents seem to agree that at the heart of Illinois’ nuclear discussion is the question of what to do with the waste. While advocates say there are options for the safe storage and even recycling of nuclear waste, others warn that the spent fuel’s toxic qualities and long life span present unique challenges – and the U.S. is not wholly prepared for them.

It’s a concern that Jen Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, shares. The organization opposes the legislation alongside other environmental advocacy groups, including the Sierra Club Illinois Chapter, the Environmental Law and Policy Center and the Environmental Defenders of McHenry County.

“We do think that nuclear power is not clean or renewable energy. It has really polluting waste that results,” Walling said. “Of course, nuclear power is carbon-free, and it does have some benefits when we’re talking about the climate crisis, but it’s not an energy that we would like to see.”

Currently, America’s spent nuclear fuel is typically stored above ground in bundles of rods of uranium dioxide pellets, which are then placed in large cylindrical steel and concrete containers and kept on-site. At Exelon’s long-shuttered nuclear plant in Zion, for instance, containers continue to be stored in an area just larger than half a football field.

Due to decadeslong political battles over a potential large-scale nuclear waste repository – most recently proposed within Yucca Mountain in Nevada – the country is currently without a long-term storage site for spent reactor fuel.

Nuclear advocates maintain that there are options to address the waste. For Medsker and others, the climate crisis takes precedence.

“The most dangerous nuclear plant that we have is one we don’t build, and that’s because when that happens, we burn a lot of stuff to replace what it could give us,” Medsker said. “We can’t count on the sun and the wind to pick up the slack if we shut off this massive amount of reliable energy that we have on our grid – and it is reliable. The coal plants run well, the gas plants run well, and we’re talking about shutting all of those down. That’s north of 40% of our grid.”

To replace the state’s current use of coal and natural gas, climate advocates generally agree that advances in battery technology will be needed before renewables such as solar and wind can reliably fill the gaps.

While nuclear advocates say nuclear power is the cleanest and most reliable alternative, opponents such as Walling say the needed advances in battery technology are happening – and new large-scale nuclear power wouldn’t likely come online anytime soon, anyway.

That’s because nuclear takes more time and money to build than renewables, Walling said, citing Georgia’s Vogtle plant. The plant’s two new units – the first to be built in the U.S. in the last three decades – are years behind schedule and billions over budget.

“They’re not popping in in two or three years. This is a 10- to 15-year timeline for the state of Illinois,” she said. “When proponents talk about solving capacity issues, this is not going to solve our capacity issues.”

Walling added that she believes the state’s moratorium will eventually be repealed – but she’d like to see more state regulation put into place before that happens to ensure environmental and community safety.

“I think the lifting of this ban is too hasty, and we haven’t looked at the full repercussions,” she said. “We should do a full review of the regulatory gaps that exist for large plants, because it is regulated federally, but we also have state laws that look at it. Are those state laws up to date? Are those the best things that we can offer for the health and safety of Illinoisans?”

• Jenny Whidden is a climate change and environment writer working with the Daily Herald through a partnership with Report For America supported by The Nature Conservancy. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see