End the “NUCLEAR HOSTAGE CRISES” Now!

Letter to the Editors     

The “nuclear hostage crisis” is finally over.  Governor Rauner and the Illinois Legislature has ordered all Illinois ratepayers to pay the $2.35 billion ransom to Exelon Corporation over the next ten years, ostensibly to save the ~1,500 jobs at the Clinton and Quad Cities nuclear reactors.  That amounts to $1.57 million for each job “saved.”  Heckuva job, Raunie!

But this threat of job loss has only been postponed not eliminated.  Every operating reactor has an inevitable ending hanging over it known as its operating license termination date – the date beyond which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says, “Game over, lights out!”  That date is publicly available, and was known in advance for Clinton and Quad, and for all other Illinois reactors – meaning that every reactor community in Illinois will at some point be going through the same psychodrama that unfolded around Clinton and Quad Cities recently.

Make no mistake – the impact of Exelon’s closure threats were real, needed to be taken seriously, and would have been hugely painful to those communities.  Loss of jobs, reduced tax base and reduction of public services are all very real effects experienced by the Zion community when ComEd closed those reactors in 1998, effects from which it still has not recovered, according to Mayor Al Hill.

Responsible governance calls for this never happening again.  Responsible governance calls for pro-active plans to insure that workers are protected, and local tax bases are not decimated overnight by legally allowed corporate caprice.  Illinois needs a “reactor exit strategy” in place BEFORE the next nuclear hostage crisis occurs.

Gov. Rauner said he supported the Exelon bailout because, “closing the plants would have “devastated the two communities.”  If he really and truly believes that, then he should have worked to bail out the potentially devastated communities, not the hugely profitable Exelon corporation.

For over 2 years our organization argued that the State must insist that a “just transitions” program be instituted to protect reactor (and perhaps coal) communities from the withdrawal of “company town” utilities like Exelon.  Absent such a proactive plan, this “bailout tango” will be repeated in the future when Byron, LaSalle, Dresden and Braidwood start to become “unprofitable” for Exelon.

We spelled out potential funding mechanisms, which are eminently negotiable. We left copies of this plan at the offices of over 40 legislators and state officials, including Governor Rauner’s office, Rep. Madigan’s office, Sen. Cullerton’s office, the AG’s office, and numerous individual legislators including Sen. Radogno, the Clean Jobs Bill sponsors, and others.  We personally gave copies to Sen. Chapin Rose who represents the Clinton community, and representatives from the Quad Cities chamber of commerce and City Administrator of Clinton.  We made it part of our testimony before the House and Senate Energy Committees.  We urged that it become a topic of discussion and negotiation in the recently enacted legislation.

No luck.

Evidently. legislators love 6-hour public hearings, and annual bailout proceedings.  It’s much easier to pass the bills along to disempowered ratepayers than to engage in responsible governance.

Already, Exelon has announced to Bloomberg Press that it’s possible that the Byron nuclear station could become economically challenged as early as 2017.  We asked legislators during the House Energy Committee hearing on the Exelon bailout if they will convene more six hour hearings to debate more bailouts when Dresden becomes challenged, or Braidwood, or LaSalle.  Then, they can start with the coal communities.  Or alternately, they can plan ahead for the inevitable.

Now that Exelon has received its pound of flesh, the public needs protection.  The Spring legislative session would not be too soon to enact a “just transitions” provision that protects both communities affected by powerplant closures, and Illinois ratepayers now forced to pay ransom to delay them.

But then, that would require governance.  And this is Illinois.

 

Published Version

NOTE: A version of this letter appeared in the State Journal Register, Dec. 13, 2016

Star Journal Register

 

Beware the Nuclear Bailouts – and Hucksters

An old Mark Twain adage states that a falsehood gets half-way around the world before Truth gets its boots on.  Its wisdom and accuracy is thoroughly proven – by the fact that Mark Twain was probably not the one who said this.

The wisdom of the adage has again been amply demonstrated by recent articles written by pro-nuclear advocates calling for the bailout of money-losing nuclear plants based on the dubious contention that they are needed to combat climate change. 

While this contention is flat out wrong, it does prove yet another adage:  “Never send in an engineer when you need an economist.”

The recent guest letter in the Cleveland.com/Cleveland Plain Dealer by Henry Spitz, a professor in nuclear and radiological engineering at the University of Cincinnati College of Engineering and Applied Science [1] has made claims that are contestable at best, flat out wrong at worst concerning both the need to bail out failing nuclear plants to combat climate change, and that recent events in Illinois and New York demonstrate that environmentalists and legislatures are somehow endorsing this position. Upton Sinclair warnings aside, his interpretation of events is quite erroneous.

In the case of the Illinois example he cites, he claims, “Illinois recognized the value of nuclear power to meeting its clean energy goals by adopting a zero emission standard.” [1]  This glib pronouncement totally ignores the complex and often irrational political process that created that outcome.

Exelon Corporation originally created a “nuclear hostage” crisis in Illinois by using the threat of job loss to try to get the legislature to pass a multi-billion dollar nuclear bailout during election years; and the fig-leaf, after the fact “benefit” that nuclear plants were necessary to meet the state’s anticipated EPA carbon footprint reduction goals.  Over several years the Company’s political strategy rationales for the nuclear bailout changed in substance and frequency as much as did the explanations for why we invaded Iraq back in 2003.  In the end Exelon’s final motive was reported in Crain’s Chicago Business on Nov. 11, 2016 [2]:

“Exelon now has dubbed the legislation, which still hasn’t been introduced officially, as the Future Energy Jobs Bill. That underscores the company’s emphasis on preserving and creating jobs rather than the environmental benefits of keeping nuclear plants open.

The bill “was not driven by the Clean Power Plan, although it had meeting those goals as an added benefit,” Exelon said in a statement. “This bill is about economics—both for Illinois consumers and for the state’s future prospects for economic development.” [2]

This telling statement was made after Exelon attempted to make alliances with downstate coal companies to get the votes needed for passage of the nuclear bailout bill, which would have resulted in some coal plants getting bailouts as well.  This gambit failed when environmental groups withdrew their support for the Exelon legislation.  So much for nuclear utility Exelon’s fig-leaf commitment to abating climate change through nuclear power.

Professor Spitz continues saying, “The Illinois measure also strengthened and expanded the state’s renewable portfolio standard, requiring greater use of solar power and wind turbines, and it expanded energy efficiency programs.” [1]

What Prof. Spitz either ignores or is unaware of is that the “strengthen[ing] and expand[ing of] the state’s renewable portfolio standard” had been held hostage for several years, and its passage was not some energy alleluia moment; but rather a political trade-off predicated on the passage of some form of nuclear bailout first.  This was the only way Exelon lobbyists would permit fixing Illinois’ broken renewable portfolio standard. Legislative leadership ordered the competing parties – Exelon, environmental groups, utility ComEd — to negotiate among themselves, and come back with legislative sausage where everybody got something, whether or not deserved or sound energy policy.

In plain English – environmental groups would get no such renewables expansion unless they first agreed to a nuclear bailout.  There are legal terms that define such conditions.  None are particularly flattering.

Prof. Spitz and others go further in their efforts to rationalize the continued existence of uneconomic nuclear reactors by claiming – quite falsely – that “environmentalists” are backing such plans.  Professor Spitz asserts,

“What’s so striking about the Illinois action is that environmentalists joined labor and business leaders in backing it. Among the environmental groups that signed on were the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Environmental Defense Fund. Something like that would have been unimaginable five years ago but it suggests that the environmental community now recognizes that nuclear power must play a role in the battle against climate change.” [1]

As a self-described scientist, Professor Spitz should understand that, just as correlation does not imply causality, coincidence does not necessarily equal agreement.

Many instances of this blatant distortion of reality have occurred over the past year, most notably involving an attempt by the Wall Street Journal  to push that angle back in late June, 2016 [3].  This assertion was quickly rebutted by clarifying statements from Sierra Club director Michael Brune and others, and in a spectacularly devastating article by Miranda Spencer of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting [4] at the time:

“Sierra Club remains opposed to dangerous nuclear power, and our efforts to make sure these plants shut down continue. Our successful work to stop and retire coal, oil, and gas operations has not precluded this important work, nor will it in the future. It’s imperative that we move toward an economy powered by 100% clean, renewable energy like wind and solar right away.” [5]  — Michael Brune, Sierra Club Executive Director, June 17, 2016

But, let’s see what “the environmentalists” in Illinois said about the nuclear bailout legislation Professor Spitz gushes over.  Was it really a recognition that nuclear has a role to play in battling climate change?  Illinois Sierra Club director Jack Darin apparently did not think so – and neither did many other environmental groups — at the bill-signing on December 7, 2016:

“These are huge leaps forward for clean energy, but the Future Energy Jobs Bill was also a compromise that includes ratepayer support for two nuclear power plants. To be clear, the Sierra Club remains opposed to nuclear power, and we do not consider nuclear to be clean energy.  While we fought for our clean energy priorities, we strongly opposed Exelon’s proposed “Low Carbon Portfolio Standard,” which would have subsidized all of Exelon’s six nuclear reactors, to the exclusion of renewable power. We defeated that proposal, and championed the Illinois Clean Jobs bill as a much better alternative. However, after nearly two years, legislative leaders and the Governor convened all stakeholders with the directive to agree on a single, comprehensive energy proposal. We fought and won to make renewable energy and energy efficiency the cornerstones of the compromise legislation, and of Illinois’ energy future.” [6] – Jack Darin, Director, Illinois Sierra Club, Dec. 7, 2016

This is hardly the ringing endorsement of nuclear’s roles in combating climate change that Prof. Spitz and others assert.

When you buy into nuclear power, it really is a lot like buying a burrito – you have to take everything they stuff inside it, and can’t cherry pick the contents after the fact.  You have to take the radioactive wastes, the Fukushima’s and Chornobyl’s, the perpetual cost overruns, the counterfeit and substandard parts, and above all – the multi-billion dollar bailouts of economically failing reactors, along with the, um, oh yeah, less-carbon intensive electricity.  But that’s not how nuclear is sold by its supporters, which tend to glibly gloss over, distort, or ignore these downsides, and more often than not seem to possess the Alfred E. Newman attitude of, “What – me worry?”

These nuclear wealth-transfer schemes (from public ratepayer wallets to private company shareholder portfolios) mortgage our energy future by bailing out the past.  Ask any blacksmith or clipper ship sail manufacturer you meet how far that will get you.

If nuclear proponents can so egregiously misinterpret an outcome, whether by ignorance of readily available and necessary facts or by deliberately cherry-picking the data to arrive at a self-aggrandizing outcome, then perhaps the public’s mistrust of nuclear power has not been so misplaced after all.  If that’s how they do their science and engineering, we’re all in big trouble.

 

SOURCES:
[1]  “Save Ohio’s two nuclear plants and continue their contributions to clean energy: Henry Spitz (Opinion),“ Cleveland.com and Cleveland Plain Dealer, Jan 16, 2017.  http://www.cleveland.com/opinion/index.ssf/2017/01/save_nuclear_power_in_ohio_and.html

[2] “Trump election takes some air out of Exelon’s Illinois energy bill,” Crain’s Chicago Business, November 11, 2016

[3] “Environmental Groups Change Tune on Nuclear Power,” Amy Harder, Wall Street Journal, June 16, 2016.

[4]  “WSJ Fakes a Green Shift Toward Nuclear Power,” Miranda Spencer, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), June 24, 2016.

[5] Sierra Club Statement on Nuclear Power Plants, June 17, 2016,  http://content.sierraclub.org/press-releases/2016/06/sierra-club-statement-nuclear-power-plants

[6] Illinois Sierra Club press statement, Dec. 7, 2016, http://content.sierraclub.org/press-releases/2016/12/sierra-club-statement-signing-future-energy-jobs-bill

 

Illinois Governor Signs Excelon Nuclear Bailout Bill

Insures continued nuclear risks and radioactive waste generation.

CHICAGO–  Governor Bruce Rauner signed the Exelon nuclear bailout bill into law today, insuring over the next 10 years a legislatively mandated  $2.35 billion rate hike, and the production of nearly 900 tons of additional high-level radioactive wastes and the other risks that nuclear power poses for Illinois.

“What a terrific Christmas gift for the children and future of Illinois,” quips David Kraft, director of Chicago-based Nuclear Energy Information Service.

“The issues of radioactive waste and continued nuclear risk were all but absent in the discussions related to the Exelon nuclear bailout bill,” notes Kraft.  “Exelon was brilliant in distracting everyone with issues they knew would be flops, like the demand charge, so that the main goal – bailing out failed nuclear reactors — would be achieved, and serious issues like nuclear waste and reactor safety would be avoided,” Kraft observes.

Illinois has more operating reactors than any other state – eleven, with three permanently closed.

As a result it also stores the most high-level radioactive waste (HLRW) in the form of the “spent” reactor fuel – over 10,000 tons as of current inventory.  All HLRW ever created at these reactors is stored at the reactor sites, with no place to go for disposal at present.

Continued nuclear risk is also a concern.  The now bailed out Quad Cities reactors are among the oldest reactors in the country, and are the same design and older than the reactors that melted down and exploded at Fukushima in Japan in 2011.  Concerns have also been raised about the earthen dam that creates the vital cool pond for the downstate Clinton reactor, also now bailed out.

Continued reactor operation means more radioactive wastes will be created, with no place to go; more radioactive emissions  — yes, nuclear reactors are NOT emissions-free! – into the air and water, and continued vulnerability to nuclear accidents and potential disasters.  To paraphrase nuclear engineer David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists, “One ‘bad day at the office’ can ruin an entire economy for decades.”

“Governor Rauner has demonstrated either total ignorance or total disregard for these critical safety issues,” Kraft asserts.  “That’s no way for a chief executive to run the most nuclear-reliant state in the U.S.,” he concludes.

“If one were to amortize the $2.35 billion electric rate hike bailout over the 1,500 direct jobs Exelon claims would be lost if it had closed the Clinton and Quad Cities nuclear stations, Governor Rauner and Exelon are forcing Illinois ratepayers to pay $1.57 million per job “saved.”  We could buy these workers out cheaper, close the reactors, and stop the production of 900 tons of high-level radioactive wastes over the next 10 years,” Kraft points out.

NEIS will be pressing for future action on radioactive waste management and decommissioning; and on creating a “just transitions” program to prevent future economic crises from reactor closures.