CLINTON — As the financial losses mount from Exelon's operation of the Clinton Power Station, the message from company officials that the plant may close next year without legislative intervention has taken on a renewed and pressing urgency.
The single-unit power plant situated on about 14,000 acres six miles east of Clinton has transformed from a big money producer for Exelon's fleet of 11 reactors at six Illinois sites to posting $360 million in losses over the past six years. That shift has put the 29-year-old plant in danger of early retirement — the plant's current reactor operating license will expire Sept. 29, 2026.
In 2014, Exelon informed state lawmakers — and the public — that Clinton and the Quad Cities and Byron plants in northern Illinois could be targeted for shutdowns if changes were not made to state law to help the utility more effectively compete with its counterparts in the energy industry.
So far, the Legislature has failed to act.
Without help from Springfield, contends Exelon, it's questionable the plant that employs about 700 workers and pumps $63 million in payroll dollars into the area annually will remain open.
"It's definitely something that could happen. Exelon is going to make a decision this year, by fall at the latest," said Exelon spokesman Brett Nauman.
Those sentiments were echoed recently by Exelon president and CEO Chris Crane, who said the utility is committed to keeping the plant open through May 2017, but "without urgent action on the policy front, we will have no choice but to prepare for a potential early retirement in the face of continued financial losses at our Clinton nuclear plant."
Price guarantees for the 100 million megawatt-hours of electricity generated by Exelon's plants — roughly half the electricity generated in the state in 2013 — could be part of proposed legislation.
"Right now, we're negotiating what the new bill would look like," said Nauman.
Several factors are behind the downward spiral in energy prices.
Clinton's location in the state's midsection where manufacturing jobs and the accompanying demand for electricity have dwindled has put the plant in a far weaker economic position than when it opened in 1987.
Exelon also faces the economic challenges brought on by lower natural gas prices. Hydraulic fracturing, a controversial process known as fracking, that produces a greater supply natural gas has had a negative impact on nuclear energy with its higher production costs.
Ted Stoner, site vice president at the Clinton plant, sees light at the end of the tunnel for Exelon if the company can obtain financial help.
"We truly believe that in five to seven years the power prices will be back up," said Stoner.
Part of the reason for that optimism is a new federal requirement under the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan that will reduce carbon pollution from fossil-fuel power plants. The mandate has had an impact on Illinois' coal plants, with several already closed or planning to shut down as others begins the transition to natural gas by 2020.
Howard Learner, president and executive director of the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center based, thinks closing the Clinton plant should be a business decision, not a legislative issue.
“The Clinton nuclear power plant is not competing very well in the competitive economic power market,” he said. “Everybody looks with excitement when a new natural gas plant is built. People look with excitement when a new wind farm comes, creating construction jobs.
Noting that the Clinton nuclear plant is competing with coal plants, with low-price natural gas plants "and in some ways" with other Exelon nuclear plants, Learner added, "Exelon’s management needs to make a decision based on the view of the market today and what the market will be in the future. But it needs to be an Exelon decision.”
Still, support for nuclear energy is coming from a wide segment of the scientific community, including environmentalists who have dropped their long-held opposition.
Michael Shellenberger, founder of Environmental Progress Illinois and a former anti-nuclear activist, was among a coalition of scientists and environmentalists to sign a letter to Illinois legislators in support of nuclear energy.
Environmental groups play a significant role in the negotiations with lawmakers to add nuclear to the list of energy sources receiving subsidies, said Shellenberger.
"A single phone call from the head of the Sierra Club, the Environmental Policy Center and the National Resources Defense Council to their Illinois chapter leaders would be enough to save Clinton," said Shellenberger, who led a group of scientists on a recent visit to the Clinton plant.
As coal becomes less attractive, advocates of nuclear power see an opportunity for renewed interest in its clean and reliable energy.
In an October 2015 report on the implications of a shutdown of Exelon's three Illinois plants, The Nuclear Energy Institute, a lobbying group, noted that "over the past 10 years, the (Illinois' 11 reactors) ... have operated at 96 percent of capacity, which is above the industry average and signifcantly higher than all other forms of electric generation."
The Clinton Power Station also received the highest marks among Exelon plants last year for safety and reliability.
A decision to shutter the plants also creates the future headache of replacing the massive amount of power they produce. Wind and solar energy is expected to continue to grow as alternative sources, but the wind doesn't always blow and the sun isn't always shining.
"The average consumer could pay twice as much for electricity" if the plant closes, contends Stoner. Estimates from a state study indicate that wholesale energy prices could rise by as much as $341 annually for families and businesses in the surrounding region.
As the Clinton plant remains at the forefront of the nuclear energy debate, more than 700 workers report to work at the facility that functions much like its own city on the outskirts of Clinton.
The highest portion of the plant's operating budget pays for security for the plant and the adjacent 5,000-acre cooling lake. Employees are very aware their jobs are in jeopardy.
"We've been very transparent with staff," said Nauman. Workers have been told that "if the plant is retired, there is a job for them if they are willing to work with us. The job may be in another state or location, but Exelon is committed to taking care of them."
Exelon has delayed action on its application to renew the operating license that expires in 2026, citing budget considerations and uncertainties over the plant's future.
If the state comes through with new legislation, Exelon will complete that process with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission for another 20-year operating permit, said Nauman.