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Thursday, May 6, 2010 01:30 pm

How to gut renewable energy

For the third consecutive legislative session, myopic legislators have introduced illogical, almost surreal rationalizations for why they should repeal one state law that has successfully protected Illinois for 23 years, and sabotage a second that promotes zero-carbon, sustainable and less-polluting energy.

I refer here to attempts to repeal what has become known as the “nuclear construction moratorium.”

This 1987 law simply says: Illinois will not permit the construction of new nuclear plants until there exists an environmentally responsible way of permanently disposing of the dangerous radioactive wastes they create.

The Sears Tower, John Hancock Center and Illinois’ currently operating nuclear reactors were being constructed around the same time. Imagine if legislators of the day – touting reasons like jobs, federal money and proud legacies – allowed these and future skyscrapers to be built without bathrooms. This is precisely the (il)logic of today’s legislators calling for moratorium repeal.

Sen. Mike Jacobs – champion of the Senate’s repeal legislation – chases more Illinois jobs, and the hope of federal loan guarantees for some far-in-the-future as yet unproposed nuclear construction projects. Perhaps he is unaware of the fact that today renewable energy projects can produce 3-4 times the number of jobs per dollar spent than can nuclear, and on projects ready to go today, not at some mythical future time. He also fails to grasp that a “loan guarantee” is not a “cash grant.” There will be no federal money for Illinois until the Department of Energy first funds applicants it has already designated on its list, all ahead of Illinois – sometime well into the next decade. Where’s the urgency?

HB4875 sponsor Rep. JoAnn Osmond pines about wanting to leave a legacy for her grandchildren. Is the 6,000 generations of radioactive wastes that new reactors would create sufficient?

This simple, logical law protects Illinois from serious side effects unforeseen in 1987.

The moratorium was enacted expecting that the federal government would open a high-level radioactive waste repository in 1997. It didn’t, and just terminated the faulty Yucca Mountain repository project, the only candidate under evaluation – meaning, there will be no operational disposal facility for decades to come. The moratorium protects Illinois from adding further to what is already the nation’s largest inventory of orphaned high-level radioactive waste, currently stored on the banks of the Illinois river network and Lake Michigan.

Moratorium repeal sabotages the 2007 Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard law requiring electric utilities to generate 25 percent of electricity by renewables by 2025. Introducing 1,200 megawatts of new nuclear-generated electricity will saturate local markets, killing any chance for renewables to get cheaper via economies of scale. This gives utilities the opt-out excuse they need to not comply with the RPS.

Current utility lawsuits against the federal government for not meeting their 1997 obligation to open a disposal facility and take wastes will cost U.S. taxpayers – including those living in Illinois – hundreds of millions of dollars in penalties. Building more reactors without an operational waste facility simply adds more wastes, and therefore more fines that Illinois taxpayers will have to pay for.

Instead of gutting renewable energy and chasing mythical, futuristic nuclear power El Dorados, legislators like Jacobs and Osmond need to find realistic solutions to the state budget crisis they have aided and abetted. While it’s natural for desperate legislators to grasp at improbable positives while ignoring likely negatives, doing this with nuclear power can have deadly side effects, both environmental and economic.

David Kraft is director of Nuclear Energy Information Service, a Chicago-based safe-energy nuclear power watchdog organization, which has monitored radioactive waste issues for the past 28 years.
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