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Time Is Running Out To Save The Byron Nuclear Plant, And The Community Is Getting Nervous

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Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco
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Christine Lynde says her community feels “powerless” -- despite being home to a nuclear plant that provides electricity to over 2 million Illinois homes.

Lynde is the president of the Byron School Board. She’s spent the last year signing witness slips and writing advocacy letters to lawmakers stressing urgency to save the plant.

“I'm still optimistic, but I probably have never been more anxious about the legislature finishing or making good on a promise,” she said.

Exelon announced plans last summer to shutter that power station, and one in Dresden, this September. The billion-dollar energy giant just filed paperwork to deactivate one of the two cooling towers at the Byron facility.

“It’s water vapor coming out of those cooling towers. No radioactivity, no pollution, no carbon. It’s just water,” said Dale Merchant, radiation protection manager in an Exelon explainer video. That means no emissions, which Illinois is trying to cut by 80% by 2050.

Part of securing that future is the Climate Union Jobs Act, a sweeping energy plan that needs to pass the state legislature in order to also keep the facility running.

In response to Exelon’s closure announcement, Byron residents created a “Byron Station Response Committee” and a website called “Save Illinois Nuclear Power.”

Former students posted videos to the site talking about the opportunities they’ve had in Byron, and how the nuclear plant plays a big role in supporting community programs.

“Byron station contributes greatly to our schools, forest preserves, recreational facilities and so much more. There are a lot of impacts of the closing of the Byron station that you could see in studies and hear on the news,” said Mary, a 2019 Byron High School grad. “But I want to remind everyone that at the end of the day, it will affect people of every age and ability.”

Thousands of jobs are on the line. And Lynde says the ripple effects extend out to everything from business to education.

“I'm on a school board, where 74% of our income comes from the tax revenue from that plant,” Lynde said. “So we will be hit hard, it will be devastating to us.”

Byron school district officials ran the numbers on what districts around them received in local taxes and state funding. Lynde says it would take years to make up the funding if not for immediate state intervention.

“There is a fatal flaw in the Evidence-Based Funding formula. It's not responsive, there is no metric for what you do when a district loses revenue in the extreme amount that we would be losing,” said Lynde.

She says they could use some immediate state intervention now. They hoped the Climate Union Jobs Act would pass during the legislative session, but that deadline came and went. Then lawmakers met in Springfield in early June but still couldn’t reconcile their differences over the bill.

“All of the people, the environmentalists, the unions, the governor's office, the legislators, they all need to understand that there is a sense of urgency here,” she said.

Fossil fuels have been a roadblock in state negotiations, particularly as Illinois wants to phase them out by 2030. The proposed bill would close the Prairie State Coal Plant in a bit over a decade.

“I understand that those communities are probably in the same boat as we are,” she said. “They rely on those generation facilities for their tax basis, their employment, for all of those things. But the phase-out for them is not weeks, it's years. We have weeks.”

If the nuclear stations close, it could set back the state’s clean energy timeline. 54% of electricity in Illinois comes from nuclear. Illinois would have to either rely more on fossil fuels to make up the difference or import energy from other states at high prices.

Exelon wants to close the nuclear plants because they say the energy market is unfair and not profitable. They’re seeking nearly $700 million worth of state subsidies to keep them open. The state subsidies for the utility company may result in higher electricity prices for consumers.

Lynde says the school district and families probably feel the weight of the time limit more than the politicians writing the legislation. But that doesn’t mean their state lawmakers have ignored Byron, she said representatives Tom Demmer and Dave Vella have been helpful through the process.

Local organizers will continue holding events to help raise awareness and get the bill passed -- but there are only weeks to spare. And negotiations on a deal continue. Lawmakers could be called to Springfield any day to vote on the plan to decide the future of green energy in Illinois.