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Illinois town faces threat of nuclear plant shutdown
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Illinois town faces threat of nuclear plant shutdown

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Byron Generating Station

The Byron Generating Station is seen through a cornfield in Byron on Tuesday.

The economic future of this community nestled along the Rock River in northwestern Illinois very well could be decided in the next few days at the state Capitol in Springfield.

Exelon, the parent company of scandal-plagued Commonwealth Edison, has given the Democratic-controlled General Assembly and Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker an ultimatum: Pass an overhaul of state energy policy that includes a nearly $700 million bailout for three of its nuclear power plants, or its Byron Generating Station will begin shutting down on Monday.

It’s an anxious time for local officials and residents in Byron, a city of about 3,600, and surrounding communities in Ogle County and beyond as they wait for action in Springfield. If Exelon follows through on its threat, there’s little hope for replacing a plant that has powered the area’s economy, along with millions of homes across northern Illinois, for close to four decades.

“We’re pawns in a big chess game,” Byron Mayor John Rickard said Tuesday. “We do not control our fate. And that’s not a good place to be.”

The Illinois House is set to reconvene Thursday to take up a proposal approved last week in the Senate that has the backing of organized labor, as well as a separate plan introduced late Friday that has the support of Pritzker and allied environmental groups.

Unless the House approves the Senate plan without any changes, the Senate would have to return as well to send a final agreement to the governor’s desk. Because any proposal would need to take effect immediately upon Pritzker’s signature, a deal will require approval from a three-fifths majority in each chamber.

Without the nuclear plant, the Byron region stands to lose more than 700 high-paying jobs and an estimated $487 million annually in related economic activity — nearly 3% of the area’s gross domestic product, according to a study last year from a researcher at Northern Illinois University.

The plant’s twin cooling towers rise amid rolling farmland across the river from Byron, so the city doesn’t receive any direct tax revenue from it. But it generates about $19 million annually for the local schools — nearly three-quarters of the total property tax revenue collected by Byron Community School District 226.

Exelon has argued that subsidies tacked on to customers’ power bills are justified because its nuclear plants, which produce large amounts of energy without spewing climate-damaging carbon dioxide, can’t compete with cheaper, dirtier fossil fuels and subsidized renewable sources such as wind and solar. Without nuclear power, Pritzker’s goal of reaching 100% carbon-free energy by 2050 — one of the main drivers of the current energy debate — wouldn’t be within reach, the company and its supporters say.

Exactly how much consumers would be asked to pay to subsidize nuclear and renewable energy and cover other costs associated with the plan has been difficult to pin down, but one estimate pegs the cost of the Senate proposal at about $3.50 per month for the average residential customer.

The timing of Exelon’s closure threat loaded heavy political baggage onto to the already complex task of setting statewide energy policy that balances the often competing demands of labor unions, environmentalists and power customers, among others.

Exelon first said in August 2020 that, without a deal, it would close Byron this month and its Dresden nuclear plant later this year. That was about a month after its ComEd subsidiary agreed to pay a $200 million fine and admitted in federal court that it engaged in a yearslong bribery schemed aimed at advancing its agenda in Springfield — including a previous nuclear plant bailout in 2016.

ComEd’s bombshell acknowledgment led to the ouster in January of longtime House Speaker Michael Madigan, who has not been charged and has denied wrongdoing, and then to his resignation after a half-century in the legislature.

After tense negotiations throughout the spring, Pritzker’s office reached an agreement with Exelon in the waning hours of the legislature’s spring session in late May that would put power customers on the hook for nearly $700 million in subsidies over five years for the Byron and Dresden plants, along with a third plant near Braidwood in Will County.

Byron Generating Station

A truck drives near the Byron Generating Station in Byron, Illinois, on Wednesday. 

But legislation didn’t reach the floor before the General Assembly adjourned its spring session, and talks have dragged on throughout the summer. Lawmakers and the governor’s office, along with their allies in organized labor and the environmental movement, so far have failed to reach an agreement on phasing out two other power plants: the coal-fired Prairie State Generating Station in southern Illinois, which serves communities across the state, and the city-owned coal plant in Springfield.

The Senate plan would force the plants to shut down in 2045 — 15 years later than other coal plants. But Pritzker has said he won’t sign that plan because he also wants the plants to cut emissions in the interim. The House proposal, which has the governor’s support, would require those plants to cut carbon emissions by 45% by 2035 and entirely by 2045.

While officials in Byron don’t lack sympathy for the impact those shutdowns would have on other communities, the threat they’re facing can be counted in days, weeks and years, not decades.

“If the coal plant were sitting 5 miles from here and generating economic income, we’d be having a slightly different conversation,” Rickard said. “I would still want to say, ‘We need to stop doing that. Can we gear it down in such a way? Can we do job replacement programs?’”

Those are the kinds of questions Byron and other communities that rely on nuclear plants should have been asking themselves and attempting to answer for years, said David Kraft, director of the Nuclear Energy Information Service, a longtime Exelon critic and opponent of atomic energy.

“Exelon’s business model has depended on the company-town dependency fostered by their ‘nuclear hostage crisis’: threaten closures, declare ‘crisis,’ get the locals to pressure the legislature for bailouts; get bailouts paid for by everyone else. Repeat cycle,” Kraft said in a statement responding to a letter to editor from Rickard published in the Tribune in July. “It worked in 2016. But this is a cycle of failure. You can’t build an energy future by bailing out the past.”

For Rickard, though, the heart of the issue is that “we do not have a comprehensive energy plan in this country, let alone this state.”

President Joe Biden has pushed for federal action to combat climate change and boost clean energy, and a $1 trillion infrastructure plan approved last month in the U.S. Senate includes federal aid for nuclear power plants. The measure hasn’t received final congressional approval, and Exelon has said any federal help won’t come in time to change its course in Byron.

Byron District 226 School Board President Christine Lynde has grown frustrated waiting for elected officials in Springfield to take action, particularly over the summer. She felt Pritzker and the legislature’s Democratic leaders, Senate President Don Harmon of Oak Park and House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch of Hillside, were sitting on the sidelines while their allies in labor and the environmental community fought it out.

“They need to be leading,” said Lynde, whose youngest child just graduated from Byron High School and whose husband works in operations at the plant. “If there’s a divide between the so-called (environmentalists) and the labor (unions), then they need their leadership to figure out a compromise. For them to sit back and have a hands-off approach, that’s not leadership.”

Lynde’s criticisms aren’t limited to the Democratic side of the aisle.

Like most of the nuclear plants in Illinois, Byron is in heavily Republican territory, and a local campaign hasn’t succeeded in convincing all of the area’s GOP lawmakers to support efforts to keep the plant open.

Republican state Sen. Brian Stewart of Freeport, whose district is home to the plant, voted against the measure approved in the Senate last week, as did Sen. Dave Syverson of nearby Rockford.

“I think he understands the nuclear situation,” Lynde said of Stewart. “I think there’s probably other things in that bill he disagrees with. But I would ask and implore him to put his constituents first. At some point, you should be representing the people who elected you.”

Stewart did not respond to an interview request through his district office, but in a statement last week, he pointed to the ComEd bribery scandal as one of his reasons for voting against what he called a “lose lose” proposal.

Stewart also raised concerns about continued subsidies for renewable energy companies and the closure of coal plants across the state, among other issues.

“I would have strongly supported provisions to protect the Bryon nuclear power plant if they were presented in a stand-alone bill,” Stewart said. “What they aren’t telling you is that (the Senate plan) also has a number of bad provisions, poison pills that will ultimately hurt Illinois ratepayers, businesses and consumers by significantly increasing utility rates.”

State Rep. Tom Demmer of Dixon, a Republican whose district includes the city of Byron and borders the power plant, understands — and to some extent shares — the concerns of fellow GOP lawmakers.

“The ethical failures at ComEd in the past have absolutely made this situation much more difficult,” Demmer said, adding that he also has concerns about what the overall package will cost power customers.

But that has to be weighed against the risks of inaction, he said.

“The choice to do nothing in Springfield also would have an impact on the energy market,” Demmer said.

In addition to devastating job losses for the region, he said, closing the nuclear plants could result in the need to buy energy from out-of-state producers that burn fossil fuels in order to meet demand, undermining the state’s economic and clean energy goals and potentially costing customers more.

“It’s not going to be Illinois jobs, it’s not going to be zero-carbon, and it’s going to be more expensive too,” Demmer said.

Elected officials aren’t the only ones fretting over the future of the plant.

Restaurants, bars and other businesses throughout Byron are displaying signs urging residents to contact their legislators about saving the plant, and everyone encountered Tuesday afternoon seemed to have an opinion about the situation, whether or not they were willing to share it publicly.

Longtime area residents Bill and Karen Sikorski, who were having lunch at Sunrise II Family Restaurant on Second Street in downtown Byron, have lived outside of town since a few years before the nuclear plant opened.

“This town changed immensely,” Bill Sikorski said, pointing to the “three great big state-of-the-art schools.”

Were they surprised lawmakers haven’t acted with Exelon’s deadline so close at hand?

“Yes, but no,” Karen Sikorski said. “It’s all political.”

Two doors down at 2nd Chance Tavern, bartender Joanie Carlson was more blunt in her assessment, comparing the situation to bovine excrement.

“Once it’s shut down, it’s done,” Carlson said. “It’s stupid.”

Power plant workers will likely move away in search of other jobs, resulting in higher taxes for those who stay, she said. Businesses also would lose out on the boost they get from the extra workers that come to town for refueling or other scheduled outages.

“I’d hate to see Byron be a ghost town,” Tami Rapp, a longtime resident who has worked construction jobs at the plant, said while seated at the bar.

The concerns go beyond economics, she said. The plant has become part of the area’s identity, and its steam-billowing cooling towers serve as guideposts that mark the way home.

“I wouldn’t know what to do without those smokers smoking in my backyard,” Rapp said.

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