Climate scientist James Hansen stumps for nuclear in Illinois as Exelon bill looms
James Hansen, a scientist famous for sounding the alarm about climate change, visited Illinois to rally support for nuclear energy this week in a trip some saw as a push for state state legislation backed by Exelon.
On Monday, a coalition of scientists and conservationists including Hansen; Michael Shellenberger, an anti-nuclear activist turned high-profile nuclear proponent; and Whole Earth catalogue founder Stewart Brand sent an open letter to Illinois legislators asking them to “do everything in your power to keep all of Illinois’s nuclear power plants running for their full lifetimes.”
That night, Shellenberger, Hansen and philanthropist Rachel Pritzker spoke at Northwestern University’s journalism school, and on Tuesday they paid a visit to workers at Exelon’s Clinton nuclear plant, one of up to three the company has threatened to close if the state does not pass a law ensuring Exelon up to $300 million more per year in revenue.
The letter says that 18,640 lives were saved by Exelon’s Clinton and Quad Cities nuclear plants, compared to the theoretical impacts of air pollution that would be caused by fossil fuel plants generating the same amount of energy. If those two plants close, the letter says, “much of the nuclear energy would have to be made up for with coal or natural gas.”
“One solution might be to expand Illinois’ Renewable Portfolio Standard to include nuclear energy,” says the letter. “Such a change would allow Illinois to be more ambitious, achieving 70 percent or more of its electricity from clean energy. The standard should be set so that renewable energy has plenty of room to grow while ensuring that Illinois does not go backwards.”
The energy bill previously proposed by Exelon would create a low-carbon portfolio standard to replace the renewable portfolio standard. Critics have argued that the bill would diminish the case for new renewable energy in the state.
Support for nuclear or for Exelon?
Elisabeth Moyer, a climate scientist who declined to sign the letter, was in the audience at Northwestern and criticized the speakers for using a general bid for support of nuclear energy to mask a push for legislation mired in the “swamp of Illinois politics.”
Opponents of Exelon’s bill say the company does not need more funds to keep the plants open, especially after capacity auctions last year that were very favorable for the plants.
Shellenberger stressed that he and Environmental Progress Illinois have not taken a formal position on Exelon’s proposed legislation. Speaking with Midwest Energy News, he expressed support for the concepts in the bill.
“Nuclear is not treated fairly as a clean energy source – it does not get the same subsidies as solar and wind gets, and everyone agrees if it were its plants would not be in trouble,” he said. “Everyone agrees if you had it included in the RPS, it would not be in trouble.
“You have complicated questions about how much Exelon is losing – are they demanding too much?” But the bottom line, he said, is that the Clinton plant and the others in Exelon’s fleet should stay open.
Shellenberger recently founded the group Environmental Progress Illinois (EPI), described as an independent organization that takes no donations from the energy industry. The slogan on its website is “protect and grow solar, wind and nuclear energy.”
“It’s too bad we have to have these corporations that own these plants,” Shellenberger said. “We have these magic machines – these are public assets – these are really important plants for all of us.”
Pritzker, a board member and major funder of Environmental Progress Illinois, said, “I realize it’s become a partisan issue but I have hope that by having more conversations like this, by talking to people on both sides of the aisle, we can find some compromises…providing a new model of how to properly value and price energy could have ramifications well beyond Illinois for the rest of the country and even the world.”