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Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2008 02:47 pm

Nuclear power group seeks answers to old questions

Are committee members already biased in favor of nukes?

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Byron nuclear generation station just south of Byron, Ill.
PHOTO BY BEN JACOBSON/WIKI

Before the first meeting of the Illinois Nuclear Power Issues Task Force got underway last week, a colleague handed state Sen. Michael Bond a stack of memoranda containing lists of questions.

The memos were written in 1980, and the questions are still waiting for answers. Ever since the memoranda were written, officials have gone back and forth about the role nuclear power should play in filling the state’s energy gaps. But with a push to reduce the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels, near-zero carbon solutions such as wind, solar and nuclear power are becoming more attractive.

Bond, a Grayslake Democrat who sponsored the legislation that created the nuclear issues task force this summer, believes the time is right for Illinois — which gets half of its electricity from nuclear power — to revisit the nuclear question. “We realize a lot of this has been discussed before,” he says. “There’s a whole new urgency of thinking about energy in a carbon-free portfolio.”

An 11-member panel comprised of lawmakers, scientists and environmental experts, the task force was assembled in July to research nuclear power-related issues and report its findings to the General Assembly by January 2009.

Dave Kraft, director of the Nuclear Energy Information Service, a Chicago-based watchdog group, wondered early on whether the committee was a “a task-force to know or a task-force to show.”

During the panel’s first meeting on Dec. 4 in Chicago, Kraft says, “Some of the language [used by members of the nuclear power issues committee] was very strong about moving forward with nuclear without any sort of examination going on. Their discussion is prejudging the outcome.”

Under the joint resolution that established it, the task force focuses on examining Illinois’ longstanding prohibition on new nuclear power production, the structure and process for any new power generation, ways nuclear generation can help meet future power needs, greenhouse gas emissions and potential regulations to constrain carbon output.

Decommissioning of existing or retired nuclear plants, including waste storage or disposal, storage and movement of nuclear waste and its economic potential, reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel and security issues are to be addressed as well.

Illinois has been a focal point of the nation’s nuclear debate ever since University of Chicago physicists achieved the world’s first controlled nuclear chain reaction in 1942. Eleven nuclear reactors would eventually be built here, more than in any other state. In 1987 the General Assembly enacted a moratorium on generating new nuclear power. In 1998, Commonwealth Edison shut down its Zion Nuclear Power Station in Lake County.

Sen. Bond, who represents Lake County in the legislature, says the idea for the task force grew out of discussions over what to do about Zion — whether to keep it open as a storage facility or expedite its closure. If Zion is decommissioned, where would the spent fuel that’s currently stored there go? Can the nuclear waste currently stored there be moved to another site until the controversial Yucca Mountain storage facility in Nevada begins operating? What if Yucca Mountain never opens?, he asked.

Bond, who also co-chairs the committee, says he hasn’t formed an opinion other than we need to meet our future energy demands. “I’m aware that this is a very emotional topic. It’s been controversial since I can remember,” he says. “If we have better alternatives we should pursue them. I’m of that mind as well but I’m also willing to give nuclear a second chance.”

The nuclear issues task force was scheduled to present its findings to the General Assembly next month but will request a one-year extension and possibly request a budget appropriation, Bond says. On Monday, Dec. 15, task force members will tour the Yucca Mountain repository and plan to visit several Illinois nuclear facilities as well.

Dr. Ivan Oelrich, vice president of the Federation of American Scientists’ strategic security program, who also made a short presentation to the nuclear task force, cautioned the committee to remain skeptical about nuclear technologies.

“They were starting from a presumption that nuclear power was going to be a big part of the energy-producing future,” he says.

“Maybe that’s right but this kind of task force should start off with as few assumptions as possible. They should keep in mind that maybe there are other alternatives here and pursue a broader range of perspectives.”

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinositmes.com

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