Pritzker enables new small-scale nuclear technology in Illinois

Gov. JB Pritzker signed legislation Friday that would allow limited development of new nuclear power generation technologies in the state.

The measure, House Bill 2473, does not allow new large-scale power generation facilities like the six plants already operating in the state, but rather allows new smaller-scale emerging technologies.

Since 1987, the state has had a moratorium on any new nuclear power construction until the federal government designates a long-term disposal site for nuclear waste — something that has never happened. The new law will go into effect on June 1, 2024, but because nuclear power takes many years to authorize at the federal level, the earliest a nuclear project could come online in Illinois would be in 2030.

HB 2473 creates a regulatory framework for the construction of small modular nuclear reactors, or SMRs. The bill limits the stated capacity of such reactors to 300 megawatts, about one-third the size of the smallest of Illinois’ six existing nuclear power plants. It also requires the state to conduct a study that will inform rules governing SMRs to be adopted by the Illinois Emergency Management Agency by January 2026.

Supporters of the bill say it’s a necessary step as Illinois tries to end its reliance on carbon-emitting energy sources over the next two decades. But opponents say it distracts from Illinois’ efforts to implement 100 percent renewable energy generation and is an endorsement of an unproven technology.

The bill passed with bipartisan support in the Senate, 44-7, and the House, 98-8, on the final day of the fall session over a veto last month. The opposition was exclusively from the Democrats. Pritzker vetoed an earlier version of the measure, but helped push the compromise through the Legislature.

Sponsors of the bill said after its passage that it has the potential to boost the reliability of Illinois’ electricity grid as the state’s energy mix becomes increasingly dependent on intermittent technologies such as wind and solar power.

Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, sponsored the bill in the Senate, while Congressman Lance Yednock, D-Ottawa, was its sponsor in the House. Rezin noted last month that she was particularly interested in the potential to develop SMRs on the sites of former coal plants, avoiding the need to build new transmission lines, although that process could take many years.

David Kraft, an outspoken critic of nuclear power and head of the Chicago-based advocacy group Nuclear Energy Information Service, testified against the measure at several points during the legislative process.

Kraft said he was concerned about the lack of existing SMR installations and the unproven nature of the technology. While some nuclear reactors of this scale exist in other countries, no commercial SMRs have ever been built in the United States.

Counting Illinois, 11 states currently have some level of nuclear construction ban on the books. Since 2016, five other states have either repealed or weakened their bans. Several of the states that lifted their bans did so to pave the way for SMR technology.

But the biggest American player in this industry has suffered several setbacks recently.

In November, NuScale Power—the only company with a federally approved SMR design—announced that it was canceling its much-watched “Carbon-Free Power Project” in Utah, which would have been the first commercial NuScale reactor project. However, its executives say the company will continue with its other projects, which are in various stages of regulation and planning.

Rezin told Capitol News Illinois last month that he hopes the move by Illinois and other states to lift their construction bans will encourage the development of nuclear power in the U.S.

Pritzker did not make a statement, but signed the bill along with 15 others that were sent to his desk after the fall veto session in November. This includes Measure a, which would require the state to purchase exclusively “zero-emission vehicles,” such as electric vehicles, after January 1, 2030.

Senate Bill 1769 excludes law enforcement vehicles and vehicles purchased by the Illinois Department of Transportation as part of a program that provides buses to some mass transit systems.

Capitol News Illinois is a non-governmental, non-partisan news service covering government. It is distributed in hundreds of newspapers, radio and television stations throughout the country. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and the Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

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