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

Bill earned more votes than the three-fifths majority needed to override

Gov. JB Pritzker speaks at a news conference in Springfield Friday.

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

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

Pritzker said although 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 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 said. “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 definition of “advanced reactor,” which require that fission reactors have “significant improvements” to things such as safety features and waste yields.

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.”

—  State Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris

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.

State Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, watches on May 19, 2023, as the Senate votes on her bill lifting the state’s moratorium on nuclear plant construction.

Rezin also noted that 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 who 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.

Nuclear waste is stored on-site at the plant that produced it. But in the 1970s and ‘80s, a facility outside of Morris 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 said 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 such as 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 and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

Andrew Adams - Capitol News Illinois

Andrew Adams is a state government reporter for Capitol News Illinois