Illinois’ nuclear plants are critical to meeting climate and economic objectives in the state, including the ambitious goal some have proposed of a 100% carbon-free power sector by 2030. But according to new research out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering (NPRE) department, to meet this aggressive climate target and others, Illinois won’t just have to maintain its existing nuclear energy capacity – the state must also expand it.
Keeping Illinois’ existing nuclear plants open while investing in both advanced nuclear technology and renewable energy is the most economical path to zero-carbon that generates the “lowest lifecycle carbon emissions,” says a study co-authored by Dr. Kathryn Huff, who was recently appointed Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy at the Department of Energy, along with NPRE research scientist Dr. Madicken Munk and Sam Dotson, graduate researcher in NPRE’s Advanced Reactors and Fuel Cycle Analysis group.
Key findings from the study found:
Keeping Illinois’ existing nuclear plants open through 2050 avoids 25 million metric tons of life-cycle CO2 emissions— equivalent to taking 5.4 million cars off the road.
Without existing nuclear power, reaching zero carbon would require solar deployments to displace 10,000km2 of critical Illinois farmland, representing nearly 15% of the nation’s corn and 14% of its soybean production.
Deploying new advanced nuclear generation is the least expensive way to allow Illinois farmland to remain farmland while reaching zero-carbon by 2030.
Without the benefit of the reliable baseload provide by nuclear energy, extraordinary, possibly infeasible, grid-scale battery storage capacity is required to meet any zero-carbon target with significant renewable penetration.
Researchers simulated a range of potential economic and policy mixes for the state’s energy system to identify the most economical path to achieving emissions targets. The report’s findings add to the growing body of research demonstrating how decommissioning existing nuclear power plants endangers near-term zero-emissions targets.
Study co-authors Munk and Dotson added, “The economic and carbon implications of these findings are far-reaching for the state’s zero-emissions goals. 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.”
“In Illinois nuclear energy supports thousands of jobs, contributes millions of dollars to local and state economies and has significant potential to scale both areas with the advancement of next-generation technology, particularly in transitioning workers from emissions-heavy industries,” said Lonnie Stephenson, President of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Nuclear Matters Advocacy Council member. “As this research demonstrates, there is no disputing that Illinois’ legislators must act in the near term to save the more than 1,500 full-time positions and 2,000+ supplemental jobs tied to the Dresden and Byron nuclear power plants – supporting workers in rural communities that cannot afford to lose these family-supporting union jobs. 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.”
Professor Bob Rosner, 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 (EPIC) adds: “This report is yet another careful scholarly addition to the growing consensus that existing and advanced nuclear generation must be cornerstones of a low-carbon future. Decarbonization 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 prioritized. The tech-inclusive approach outlined by this study clearly demonstrates that such strategies are feasible if nuclear power is part of our energy mix. Thus, the six nuclear energy power plants that produce the majority of our state’s carbon-free electricity indeed critically underpin our clean energy future.”
The paper is available here in full. Financial support for this study was provided by Nuclear Matters, a national coalition of over 600,000 grassroots advocates that supports solutions that properly value nuclear power and other carbon-free energy sources.
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