Don't decommission Zion plant

By The Madison County Record | Jul 4, 2010

To the Editor:

To the Editor:
A recent report in the Chicago Tribune, "Zion plant powers up for teardown," touches on an issue that has been quietly simmering in Illinois since the 2,100 mega watt dual reactor Zion Nuclear Plant (located about 40 miles north of Chicago on Lake Michigan) was shuttered prematurely in 1998, after operating for approximately 25 years. The plant is owned by the Exelon Corporation of Chicago, which presently owns and operates six other nuclear facilities in Illinois. Exelon's CEO is John W. Rowe.

The Zion plant is part of the Midwest power grid. Its 2,100 mega watt of power would provide electricity to consumers in northern Illinois and in adjoining Mid-western states.

According to a Chicago Tribune article published on June 11, Exelon has until November to cancel its contract for decommissioning the Zion plant. If the contract is not canceled, the licenses for the reactors will then transfer to Energy Solutions in Iowa, which will begin a seven year process of dismantling the two units.
In 1997, when the decision was made to shutter the Zion plant, the Chicago Tribune informed the public that Zion was closed not because of safety, but because of economics. 

Exelon has never been required to explain and provide supporting economic and market analysis for its decision to withhold -- and now eliminate forever -- this significant source of electrical energy from the market, with its potential impact on electric rates.
If Exelon believes that it cannot run Zion's units at a profit, then why hasn't Exelon at least offered the Zion Nuclear Plant for sale to third parties? Presumably the return from a sale would be better than the cost of decommissioning.
In 2001, at the beginning of his very brief stint as head of Exelon's nuclear unit, Corbin McNeil publicly asked why the Zion plant was not being reopened. In response, Exelon issued a public statement, saying, "It would not make economic sense" to do so. McNeil's departure from Exelon followed soon after, with less than a year on the job (2001 - 2002).

In 2007, David Hollein, a senior Westinghouse nuclear engineer, asked John Rowe why Exelon didn't restart Zion, presumably in order to supply its low-cost power to the citizens of Illinois at a time when prices were going sky-high. The response was a carefully crafted letter containing the statement: "Based on a variety of criteria, we continue to believe that restart of the Zion plant is not a business priority of the Company." Hollein has intimate knowledge of every Exelon nuclear plant in Illinois and is a current resident of northern Illinois. 

Rod Adams, who runs a sophisticated blog on nuclear energy, called Atomic Insights, recently provided informed opinion supporting a formal evaluation of the restart of Zion. The quotes cited here are excerpted from a posting Adams made on Monday, June 14:
"Restoring Zion would not be terribly difficult from a technical point of view. It would not be 'cheap,' but for something in the general neighborhood of $1-5 billion dollars, the plant could become a fully licensed (both Zion licenses are not due to expire until next year) and operable greenhouse gas emission-free nuclear plant with perhaps 20-40 more years of operational life remaining," Adams wrote.
"In other words, the plant is still intact and is still being patrolled and monitored. No one has been selling off components for scrap. NRC standards have changed a good deal since Zion was first constructed, and there is probably a need to do some component replacement (steam generators, for example) and system upgrading, but there is apparently no technical issue that is too large to overcome.

A thoughtful consideration of the facts surrounding the Zion/Exelon controversy, suggests that a restart of Zion by Exelon would lower electric rates in its service area and reduce the profits from Exelon's other units. To withhold this source of electrical power for such a purpose would be equivalent to intentionally manipulating the market to maintain high prices, and if done for that purpose, would be illegal

According to the same article by Rod Adams, a current or former Exelon insider has apparently confirmed that the main reason Zion has been kept closed is because witholding the supply intentionally keeps prices higher for Exelon's other supply.

The article states:

"My sources tell me that the issue {regarding the reopening of Zion} is not technical, but financial. The financial issue is not whether or not the project cost is too much for the amount of capacity that can be delivered, but the effect that the additional capacity will have on the market price for electricity in the service territory. These people were classicall trained business. They think is is perfectly legitimate to make the determination that if adding capacity lowers customer prices to the point where the total company revenue would be less than it was before, the investment in restoration would be wasted and should be avoided."

Illinoisans deserve a complete investigation. Is Exelon simply wasting or destroying a valuable asset that could be used to ease prices in midwest electric power markets?

Customers have already mostly paid for Zion in stranded cost charges and have pre-funded the decommissioning. Restarting Zion could materially reduce customer prices, besides adding "new" capacity to the grid.
Is our government taking sides against consumers? Collusion between state legislators and power companies to keep electricity rates high cannot be tolerated. Legislators won't be tempted to cheat their constituents unless there's something in it for them.
In the larger energy debate, all sides agree that nuclear power is a desirable source of electricity. Restarting Zion appears to make good sense. 

Locally and even regionally, restarting Zion promises to bring down electricity costs. Nationally, restarting Zion is in line with federal energy policy to increase the use of nuclear power.

Restarting Zion is a better investment than building another new facility somewhere else.
There is an active grassroots effort in Illinois to have Zion restarted and not simply wasted. 

It is an important battle that must be won. The window of opportunity is still open, but will close forever in a few short months. The time is now to raise the issue, to demand our government serve us by exercising its power.

If you live in the midwest—where your electric rates may be affected—contact your state legislators and your state utility board.

By standing together we will present a strong and united voice for truth, accountability and transparency.
Nancy Thorner
Lake Bluff

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