Illinois will need more nuclear to meet climate goals: study

18 May 2021

Illinois will need to expand its nuclear capacity - not just maintain existing plants - in order to meet climate goals, a new study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has concluded. Keeping the state's existing nuclear plants open at the same time as investing in advanced nuclear technology and renewable energy is the most economical path to zero-carbon that generates the lowest life-cycle carbon emissions, the study has found.

Exelon's Byron plant (Image: Exelon)

The report, Economic and Carbon Impacts of Potential Illinois Nuclear Plant Closures: The Cost of Closures, was prepared by researchers and students at the university's department of nuclear, plasma and radiological engineering (NPRE) and led by Kathryn Huff - who has recently been appointed principal deputy assistant secretary for nuclear energy at the US Department of Energy - and Madicken Munk. The researchers modelled the state's electricity grid and conducted simulations of a range of potential economic and policy mixes to explore the effects of the premature closure of four nuclear units at the Byron and Dresden plants and identify the most economical route to achieving emissions targets.

Keeping Illinois' existing nuclear power plants in operation until 2050 would avoid 25 million tonnes of life-cycle CO2 emissions, the study found. Without existing nuclear plants, the solar deployment needed to reach zero-carbon would displace 10,000 square kilometres of farmland - representing nearly 15% of US corn and 14% of its soybean production."Extraordinary, possibly infeasible, grid-scale battery storage capacity is required to meet any zero-carbon target with significant renewable penetration" in the absence of reliable baseload provided by nuclear energy, it notes.

"The economic and carbon implications of these findings are far-reaching for the state's zero-emissions goals," Monk and co-author Sam Dotson said. "Optimistic deployment of renewable energy sources is insufficient to replace all existing coal and natural gas generation in the state, let alone replace the electricity generation that will be lost from retiring nuclear plants. To achieve these climate targets and ensure Illinois has reliable access to the scale of energy the state needs, Illinois will need to augment existing nuclear with renewables and next generation nuclear, while also expanding grid-scale battery storage. Even assuming significant cost overruns, the cost impact of advanced nuclear investment is marginal compared to all other reasonable projected approaches. In fact, this mix is the least expensive way to reach zero-carbon by 2030."

Nuclear energy supports thousands of jobs in Illinois and contributes millions of dollars to local and state economies, Lonnie Stephenson, President of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers said, adding that Illinois' legislators "must act in the near term" to the jobs tied to the Dresden and Byron nuclear power plants. "The study also illustrates advanced nuclear represents a significant opportunity to position Illinois and its workers as key players in the transition to an emissions-free economy. We should seize that opportunity," he said.

Bob Rosner - the University of Chicago's William E Wrather distinguished service professor in the departments of Astronomy & Astrophysics and Physics, and co-founder of the Energy Policy Institute at Chicago - said the report was a "scholarly addition to the growing consensus that existing and advanced nuclear generation must be cornerstones" of a low-carbon future.

"Decarbonisation strategies that, above all, reduce harmful emissions, but also retain and grow jobs, support communities, and ensure lower costs and reliable power for consumers, must be prioritised. The tech-inclusive approach outlined by this study clearly demonstrates that such strategies are feasible if nuclear power is part of our energy mix," he said.

The study received financial support from national nuclear advocacy coalition Nuclear Matters.

Exelon CEO Chris Crane earlier this month said the company will go ahead with the closure of Byron's two pressurised water reactors and Dresden's two boiling water reactors later this year if the state does not pass policy reforms to support their continued operation. The units together supply some 30% of Illinois' carbon-free energy.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News