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Community Education Leaders Fight For Future of Nuclear As Time Runs Out

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco

On the first days of the school year, students found tables in the halls of Byron schools stacked with envelopes and letters. The school district helped mail over 1,000 letters to Illinois political leaders. The letters urged them to pass an energy bill so Exelon’s generating station will stay in town.

Christine Lynde is the president of their school board. Along with other local school and business leaders, she’s spent the last yearchampioning nuclear power and pleading with politicians. Now, they’re just days away from the planned closure -- with no deal.

“I didn't think I could be more anxious. However, I proved myself wrong,” said Lynde.

Lynde says 70% of the school district’s income comes from tax revenue from the plant. She expects it could take years for state aid to make up the funding they’d lose if the station shutters.

The station in Dresden could shut down in November. The Coal City School District receives $16 million annually in property tax revenue thanks to the plant, which is a bit less than half of their budget.

“I told everybody, you can't tax your way out of this, because you'd have to over double the taxes here,” said Kent Bugg, Coal City’s superintendent. Bugg is also the president of FAIRCOM which is a committee made up of taxing districts that are home to large energy-producing facilities, many of which are nuclear.

He says it feels like their families are being held hostage in this political showdown.

“I also can't cut $16 million overnight and still run the school district,” he said. “So, there would be a combination of a large tax increase and massive cuts in programming here for our kids.”

He says it could also mean cuts to emergency services.

“It's going to be devastating, not just to the functioning of our school district, but to the families we serve,” said Bugg.

As in Byron, they’ve been sending letters, filing witness slips and calling legislators.

Now advocates have their sights set on Aug. 31. The Illinois General Assembly reconvenes for a special session on redistricting. They hope lawmakers bring up energy, too.

Sue Rezin is a Republican state senator whose district contains three of thesix nuclear power plants in Illinois, including Dresden.

She’s frustrated that none of the proposed energy bills have been called for a vote.

“The governor's administration is holding up this bill in order to push the de-carbonization component that will push the natural gas plants offline,” said Rezin.

She’s referring to the legislation that ties the nuclear power proposal with a plan to shut down coal-fired plants by 2035 and those fueled by natural gas by 2045. Rezin says lawmakers had a deal on nuclear back in May, but the fossil fuel portion of the bill has stalled negotiations.

“The only way to decrease our carbon footprint is by keeping all of the nuclear power plants online -- period. These plants provide 54% of our energy for the state of Illinois, and it's carbon-free,” said Rezin.

The Byron and Dresden plants alone provide30% of the state’s carbon-free energy.

Bugg says even though his district would be devastated, it’s bigger than just Coal City or just Byron -- it’s the whole region.

“The Dresden station is the economic engine that runs our community,” he said.

Economic impact reports from Northern Illinois University’s Center for Governmental Studiesshow the stations play a massive role in the region’s economy beyond the thousands of jobs they provide.

The study concludes that every 100 jobs at the Dresden station support over 100 jobs in other industries like construction, restaurants and real estate. And every $1 million in output from the Byron station supports another nearly $600,000 in the output of other businesses.

So, if the plants shutter for good, their communities are concerned that the ripple effects -- economic, environmental and social -- will extend far beyond the immediate jobs lost when they close.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.