Workers are methodically dismantling the once-mighty Zion nuclear power plant. Just up the road in the far north suburb, a different kind of dismantling is taking place.
The small Lake County city of Zion — founded at the start of the last century as the new “City of God” and once a bustling little blue-collar bedroom community — is staggering. Crushed by the loss of half its property-tax base when the power plant was closed in 1998, it faces the foreseeable future as a nuclear waste dump.
It wasn’t supposed be this way.
The Bourdeaus, who put their impressive inventory of antiques on sale for half price before closing, hope to sell the building they’ve owned since 1994. They aren’t happy that the nuclear waste is being kept at the power-plant site less than a mile away.
“I think it’s just stupid to leave it there,” Sharon Bourdeau says. “Why would they put it next to the water supply for millions of people?”
“The understanding was that Zion would have a nuclear power plant on the lakefront and that it would be an eyesore but that there could be some economic development down the line,” Zion Mayor Al Hill says. “The understanding also was that, when they closed it, it would be gone. That’s not what happened.”
What happened is that no one can agree on where to put about 1,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel rods. So they will stay, sealed inside stainless steel canisters, encased in concrete and stacked in neat rows of 20-feet-tall cylinders on a concrete pad, all huddled together along some of Illinois’ most beautiful lakefront shoreline.
“We are,” Hill says, “a nuclear waste dump.”
As far back as 1982, the federal government began collecting a nuclear-waste fee, paid by electricity users through fees tacked on to their bills and earmarked to pay for disposal of the radioactive spent fuel rods. Starting in 1998, the U.S. Department of Energy was supposed to start picking up spent fuel rods and taking them for storage, according to Everett Redmond, senior director of fuel cycle and technology policy for the Nuclear Energy Institute, a power industry trade group.
But there was no ready storage option to hold them. So power companies were forced to store more and more of them at their own facilities and eventually successfully sued to recover costs for this storage.
It seemed like the problem might have been solved in 2008, when the Energy Department applied for a license to store the radioactive waste in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. But the Obama administration halted that plan in 2010, citing flaws with the location.
Congress has vacillated since then between trying to restart the Yucca proposal and backing interim storage options, including one in Texas. Redmond says industry leaders are hopeful the Trump administration will move more quickly on what to do about nuclear-waste storage nationally.
Redmond points out that all U.S. taxpayers, not just electricity rate-payers, are paying for nuclear-waste disposal thanks to the industry’s successful lawsuit against the Energy Department. As of last year, more than $5 billion has been paid out of that judgment fund, he says, with some estimates suggesting that number could climb to almost $30 billion before a storage solution is found.
David Kraft, director of the Nuclear Energy Information Service, an opponent of nuclear power, has been monitoring the situation in Zion. He says that, while the on-site waste storage there isn’t ideal, his organization doesn’t support an interim storage plan.
“The responsible position is to leave it there and only move it once,” he says — to a permanent storage location.
But Kraft acknowledges that’s probably decades away, given the time it’s likely to take to find and build a suitable permanent storage location.
Local governments, meanwhile, are still reeling from the loss of the $19.5 million a year in property taxes that ComEd paid while the plant was running. That’s fallen to $1.5 million a year since the plant closed, according to Hill, who’s been pushing for the federal government to compensate Zion for having the waste stored there. He says that would at least help city and school officials to lower property taxes, which have skyrocketed since the ComEd plant closed.
Those higher taxes and the fall in home values since the housing crisis of 2008 have turned Zion into a more transient community than it used to be.