Energy bill’s passage a ‘relief’ to Byron

BYRON – “Relief” is a common word around Byron now that an energy bill containing provisions to keep the nearby nuclear generating station up and running is headed to Gov. JB Pritzker’s desk.

Illinois senators on Monday voted, 37-17-3, to pass Senate Bill 2408, which Pritzker has said he will sign. Among the bill’s provisions are $694 million in subsidies over the next five years to support three nuclear power plants owned by Exelon Corporation, according to Capitol News Illinois.

After the vote, Exelon announced it was preparing to refuel its Byron and Dresden plants as a result. The Byron Generating Station was schedule to begin going offline Monday. Dresden, located in Morris, was slated to do so next month.

“I would say it was a complete sense of relief and elation,” said Christine Lynde, chairperson of the Byron Station Response Committee. “It was just, before that, there was such a disbelief that they could really go that long. So when it came down to the day [the plant was supposed to close], it was just a relief.”

When Exelon announced in August 2020 that it planned to close the Byron and Dresden plants, concerns multiplied about how the closure would affect the school district, jobs, the housing market and more, Byron Mayor John Rickard said.

“All that kind of anxiety and fear of the unknown, this resolves that,” he said. “It’s a lot of relief that those aren’t problems we’re going to have to face in the immediate future.”

For the Byron Community Unit District 226 School Board, the bill’s passage means its members can return to some form of long-term planning, board president Lynde said.

“When they [Exelon] made the announcement a year ago, we kind of put everything on hold because, how do you move forward?” she said. “We had just finished creating this great strategic plan, got the community involved, and then we just hit the breaks on anything that would use any sort of funding.”

About 74% of the school district’s budget, or about $19 million, comes from the nuclear plant, Rickard said. The Byron Fire Protection District receives about $2.5 million from the plant, which is about 74% of its funding.

As such, the bill’s passage is cause for some relief, Fire Chief Phil De Mik said.

The 2020 announcement that the plant could be retired without state providing subsidies has been an agenda item at fire district board meetings for about a year. De Mik said the consequences to services was discussed at length, such as responding to community needs or mutual aid calls to the wider area.

“What would this do to us?” De Mik asked. “How long could we sustain our current level of service?”

In addition to providing fire department services to the community, the district is trained on radiation decontamination drills and technical rescue training, should it have to respond to an accident at the plant and provide support to the plant’s own emergency services.

“Let’s see what kind of permanent legislation they can come up with,” De Mik said. “We don’t want to have to stare this down in another five years.”

A lot can happen in five years, though, Lynde said. Her hope is the federal government comes through some some help for the nuclear industry to allow it to be competitive in the energy market, and that the Illinois Legislature continues to improve on the energy sector.

“If you want carbon-free baseload energy that’s reliable – weather-proof, so to speak – nuclear is your only option,” she said. “Nothing else is going to produce that baseload energy you need. To talk about clean energy without nuclear power is oxymoronic. When people get a better understanding of that, I think that’s when we’re going to see real change.”

One day, the plant will close, Rickard said. Everyone knows that.

“In the meantime, my hope and plan is that we can diversify the economic base [in Byron],” he said. “You’re not going to replace the plant, but how do you minimize its impact? That would be by [developing] other commercial and retail businesses in and around town.”