The worldwide fight against climate change has given new life to old nuclear power plants.
Other states have joined Illinois in working to keep low-emission nuclear plants operating.
Fifty years ago this spring, officials with the former Illinois Power Co. announced that a new power plant to be built east of Clinton would not be powered by coal. Instead, the long-gone utility — now a part of Ameren Illinois — decided to build two relatively small nuclear units along the shores of a new lake in DeWitt County.
It did not go well, at least for the next 20 or so years. The plant finally opened far over budget and far behind in its construction schedule. Only one of the two planned units was built. The single unit closed about 10 years after it opened, plagued by operating and safety issues. That fed into reasonable concerns about nuclear power after the 1979 Three Mile Island accident and disquiet about the nuclear waste that was (and still is) stored on site.
But after being closed for more than two years in the late 1990s, the Clinton plant eventually became part of Exelon, a larger power generator with a fleet of nuclear plants. And for most of the last 20 years, the plant has operated safely, reliably and efficiently.
Last year, the 35-year-old plant produced more power than at any point in its last 20 years. And as more coal-fired plants in Illinois close, the continued safe operation of the Clinton plant becomes more important for replacement power and for reducing damaging emissions.
The plant’s operating license expires in 2026, although it can be extended. Like other aging nuclear plants in the United States, Clinton is needed to help fight climate change and to provide a reliable source of large, base-load energy that solar and wind power just can’t yet meet.
It’s a scenario being played out in other states, including Michigan and California, where government leaders and others are now fighting to keep open the nuclear plants they once opposed. California Gov. Gavin Newsom has reversed course and now says he is open to extending the life of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant that he intended to close in 2025.
That’s what happens when your state endures blackouts and brownouts and alternative energy is inadequate. The Biden administration, meanwhile, last month proposed a $6 billion plan — a healthy subsidy — to keep aging yet mostly clean energy nuclear plants open as a way of reducing carbon emissions.
Few people are pushing for new nuclear plants; that ship seems to have sailed, largely because Congress couldn’t agree on a method of disposing of nuclear waste at a central location. The only nuclear plant under construction in the U.S. is — shades of Clinton — behind schedule and more than 100 percent over budget.
But the 55 remaining nuclear plant sites in the United States, including Clinton, having survived scare campaigns, federal licensing revisions and an incapacitated Congress, apparently will become energy workhorses for many more years, in some cases far beyond their expected lifespan. Given a choice between more carbon emissions and energy shortages, the old nukes offer a reasonable compromise that will help Illinois and the nation.