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Our View: Nuclear plants part of low-carbon future

Nuclear power may have fallen out of fashion in parts of the world, but it remains a critical part of the mix in Illinois’ power-generating scheme.

If our state is to meet the emissions-reduction goals proposed this week by President Barack Obama’s administration, nuclear power plants will have to be part of the solution. Under Obama’s plan aimed at reducing greenhouse gases, Illinois would be charged with reducing by 30 percent the carbon dioxide emitted by its power plants by 2030.

Nuclear power is a low-carbon power source and should be treated like one by the federal government.

Illinois – a cradle of nuclear science where important work on the Manhattan Project was done – relies more heavily on nuclear power than any other state. Illinois’ 11 nuclear reactors supply 48 percent of all power generated in the state, more than any other source.

Although they generate radioactive waste that must be securely stored for hundreds of years, nuclear reactors generate little in the way of carbon emissions.

Nuclear power facilities also employ more than 4,900 people in Illinois, with an annual payroll of about $400 million, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based lobbying group for the nuclear power industry.

But our state’s nuclear reactors are aging, and Exelon Corp., which operates several plants in Illinois, has said it will close the plants if their financial outlook does not improve.

In fact, nuclear facilities should be considered a viable source of low-carbon power generation, on par with other such sources. In light of this, the state House last week passed a bipartisan resolution asking the federal government to adopt nuclear friendly rules in its new standards for nuclear plants set to be released this year.

Since Obama’s administration abandoned plans for a national nuclear fuel repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, there has been no movement toward creating a national, secure disposal facility for nuclear waste. More than 8,600 metric tons of nuclear waste are stored at plant sites in central and northern Illinois.

The names of nuclear sites where accidents have occurred are infamous: Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island in 1979, Ukraine’s Chernobyl in 1986, Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi in 2011. The Japanese disaster, the cleanup of which will take decades, has driven industrial countries, including Japan and Germany, to decommission their nuclear plants.

Barring a groundbreaking technological discovery or a major commitment to hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” to extract natural gas, and renewable energy sources, it seems hard to envision Illinois being able to follow suit and still meet the emissions reductions goals being pushed as a means to combat global warming.

Despite their benefits, proposals for wind farms and solar fields often encounter public resistance, and state lawmakers have been slow to open the door to fracking operations, which pose their own environmental risks.

Illinois communities have coexisted and thrived because of the nuclear power plants that operate in their communities, and the state’s air has also been free of the carbon dioxide, soot, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants generated by the state’s next-most popular power source, coal-fired power plants.

Nuclear reactors will continue to be a vital part of Illinois’ power-generation capacity and they should be supported and maintained in a sensible and safe way for the future.

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