Nuclear plant shutdown in Illinois could offer lessons for SLO County

The Exelon Nuclear Zion Station plant in Zion, Ill., which shut down in 1998, is pictured June 7, 2010. Unit 2 reactor is in foreground.
The Exelon Nuclear Zion Station plant in Zion, Ill., which shut down in 1998, is pictured June 7, 2010. Unit 2 reactor is in foreground. Los Angeles Times/TNS

Nearly 20 years after the shutdown of a nuclear power plant in the small community of Zion, Illinois, the city’s finance director describes the local economy in a single word: struggling.

“We’ve lost about $18 million communitywide,” said David Knabel, referring to the annual property tax that used to be generated by the power plant. “That tax burden got shifted to businesses and residents.”

Since the plant closed, property tax rates rose 143 percent, according to city documents. That’s made it tough to attract new employers.

“With the tax rate going through the roof … who wants to buy a house or bring businesses in?” asked Knabel.

Yet Zion isn’t blaming the nuclear power plant. As local pastor and City Commissioner Mike McDowell pointed out, that was a business decision.

The city is upset, though, that it’s become a long-term storage site for highly radioactive spent fuel — something it never signed on for.

Officials say the spent fuel is preventing redevelopment of the prime lakefront property where the plant was built, and they’re looking to the federal government for financial relief.

“We can’t get the federal government to move it,” said McDowell, “and at this point, we’re not being compensated for the impact.”

Plant history

Located on 257 acres on the shore of Lake Michigan, the Zion Nuclear Power Station opened in 1973, and for years it supplied power to the city of Chicago.

In 1997, the plant had to shut down because of an operator error — control rods in one of the units were inserted too far — and it was eventually determined that it would be too costly to reopen.

The plant was officially retired on Feb. 13, 1998, and is now in the process of being decommissioned by ZionSolutions, a subsidiary of EnergySolutions. The firm is dismantling buildings at the site; in March it announced that it had removed the last of the large components — which included steam generators, pumps, motors and piping — and readied them for shipment to a waste disposal site in Clive, Utah.

It also finished transferring spent fuel from pools to a dry cask storage facility similar to the one at Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

Once the decommissioning is complete, the property will be returned to Exelon Corp., the parent of Zion’s operator, Commonwealth Edison.

Officials in the city of Zion don’t know when that will be, nor do they know how much of the property could be permanently off-limits because of the spent fuel storage facility.

Like reactor communities across the nation — including San Luis Obispo County — the citizens of Zion did not expect to store spent nuclear fuel indefinitely. They believed the federal government would make good on its commitment to accept the waste, which at one time was destined for Yucca Mountain, Nevada. That plan fell apart, however, and the federal government has yet to identify an alternative site for permanent storage.

Zion is leading a push for federal legislation that would provide financial compensation to communities that have become de facto storage sites for spent fuel.

In February, Zion Mayor Al Hill and 33 other local leaders sent letters to their federal representatives, asking for their help. Zion officials also contacted other communities with closed nuclear plants, asking them to join the effort.

Republican Rep. Bob Dold of Illinois responded. According to his staff, Dold is in the process of drafting the legislation and hopes to have it ready before Congress recesses in August.

According to a memo obtained by The Tribune, the framework for the bill proposes compensation for 13 communities with nuclear plants that have shut down, including three in California: PG&E’s Humboldt Bay plant in Eureka, Rancho Seco in Sacramento County and San Onofre in San Diego County.

The total amount of compensation mentioned is $100 million per year; it would be distributed based on the amount of fuel stored at the site. However, the memo cautions “the relatively large expenditure may … raise questions about the feasibility of the legislation in Congress” and it suggests ways to reduce the cost.

Funding would come from the Treasury’s General Fund — not from a spent fuel storage fund that ratepayers have been contributing to for years. That money can only be used for activities relating to disposal of spent fuel, not for paying damages, according to the memo.

Supporters of the legislation say that provision should not let the government off the hook.

They point to provisions in the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Waste Policy Act that regulate interim spent fuel storage facilities. They call for the government to make payments to states and/or local governments “in order to mitigate social or economic impacts occasioned by the establishment and subsequent operation of any interim storage capacity within the jurisdictional boundaries of such government or governments.”

Like it or not, leaders in Zion say they are functioning as an interim storage facility for spent fuel, and they deserve to be compensated.

“Basically,” Knabel said, “it’s asking them to take responsibility for what was created.”

A snapshot of Zion, Illinois

Population: 24,117

Median household income: $50,485

Individuals below poverty level: 17.3 percent

Median housing value: $ 132,500

Male median income: $28,262

Female median income: $20,940

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

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