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IMA Energy & Environment Blog

Illinois Issues: The Prairie State’s Nuclear Waste Conundrum

by Kevin McDermott, NPR Illinois


The Land of Lincoln is the country’s largest de facto nuclear waste dump.

Under a federal measure passed 30 years ago, the spent fuel from America’s nuclear reactors is supposed to be permanently buried out in the Mojave Desert, tucked deep under a mountain, far from any population center and easily guarded.

In reality, though, that radioactive waste – tens of thousands of tons of it – is sitting in temporary storage at dozens of current and former nuclear power sites all over the country, as it has been for decades. The largest portion of it is divided among seven sites that dot the nation’s fifth-largest state: Illinois.

The story of how the Land of Lincoln became the nation’s biggest de facto nuclear waste dump is a tale of public fear, political pragmatism and the power of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard).

It’s a story that radiates political irony. Among those responsible for Illinois’ atomic dilemma is the state’s favorite son, Barack Obama, who scuttled a decades-old project that was to have created a national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

Now there is renewed hope that Illinois will eventually unload its nuclear burden after all, because President Donald Trump – who lost Illinois by more than 17 points in November – is moving toward reviving the Yucca Mountain project.

“I understand this is a politically sensitive topic for some,” former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, now Trump’s energy secretary, said in June, “but we can no longer kick the can down the road.”

It is perhaps fitting that Illinois is the epicenter of the American nuclear power industry today, given that the Atomic Era started here. In December 1942, at the University of Chicago, Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard created the first artificial self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction.

That breakthrough, previously hypothesized from the work of Albert Einstein and others, would speed the end of World War II three years later, would hang ominously over the ensuing decades of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, and would ultimately light the computer screen on which you’re reading this.

Today, Illinois is home to six operational nuclear power sites, at Braidwood, Clinton, Cordova, LaSalle County, Morris and Ogle County. Together they operate 11 nuclear reactors currently in use, more than any other state.

The radioactive spent nuclear fuel from those reactors has remained in ostensibly temporary storage at each of Illinois’ operational sites – and at the now-shuttered Zion nuclear power plant on Lake Michigan – for years, as the federal government has failed to carry out its self-appointed responsibility to permanently dispose of it.

A revived Yucca Mountain project could change that. But not everyone believes it’s the answer to Illinois’ problem.

“For 35 years we have been watching the process disintegrate and become more and more politicized. Yucca Mountain was a political decision” rather than a scientific one, says Dave Kraft of the Nuclear Energy Information Service, a Chicago-based anti-nuclear power organization that cites the disposal issue as a fatal flaw of the nuclear industry.

Kraft’s group does favor the general concept behind the Yucca Mountain proposal —  “deep geological permanent disposal” of nuclear waste — but argues that the chosen Nevada site is dangerously unsuitable.

To a broader point, Kraft cites the whole nuclear waste debate itself as further proof of what he claims is an untenable power source going forward. “Illinois has more nuclear generation than anyone else. We get all the benefits, but now we don’t want (the waste) in our backyard.”


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