Northern Illinois nuclear plants achieving major service milestones even as closures loom

Published on July 22, 2021 by Chris Galford

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Exelon reported this week that its four nuclear plants servicing Chicago and northern Illinois are approaching 41 years — 15,000 consecutive days — of continuous service, providing more than two-thirds of the state’s carbon-free energy along the way.

“The workers at our plants are the best in the industry and operate our nuclear units at world-class levels of safety and reliability, ensuring we remain online when our communities need our electricity the most,” Dave Rhoades, Exelon Generation Chief Nuclear Officer, said. “Powering Illinois with clean energy 24 hours a day, seven days a week is a hallmark of our zero-carbon nuclear fleet.”

Capable of operating all day, every day, the plants — Dresden, Byron, Braidwood, and LaSalle — are all positioned outside the Chicago region. Byron has worked the longest and hardest, reaching 5,000 consecutive days online last week, while Dresden was nipping at its heels with 4,260 consecutive days. Meanwhile, Braidwood has put in 3,975 days, and LaSalle added 1,603 days to the streak. However, Byron is set to retire in September and Dresden to follow suit in November.

Exelon has blamed what it dubs unfair advantages for fossil fuel power plants, spurred by low power prices and market rules.

“Illinois works best when its residents have jobs, and their places of employment have the affordable electricity they need to work each day,” Sarah Downs, executive director of the Byron Area Chamber of Commerce, said. “Byron Station hitting 5,000 consecutive days of power production is incredible. These nuclear plants provide everything residents have asked for: jobs, reliable and environmentally friendly power generation, and a solid tax base for local communities. Other states wish they had this much baseload, carbon-free energy to power their businesses and homes.”

New legislation could change this, though, as policymakers consider ways to address climate change and energy policy in the changing Illinois landscape and potentially preserve the plants. Including Exelon’s Clinton and Quad Cities nuclear stations, Illinois boasts six nuclear sites currently responsible for 90 percent of the state’s clean energy. A shift to reliable energy has been accentuated by extreme weather in recent years, including increased flooding and storms.

Exelon estimates that the four Chicago-area plants alone provide some 28,000 direct and indirect jobs and $3.5 billion annually for the economy. Closing them, the company warns, could also cause the regional grid operator to dispatch fossil fuel generation to make up for lost power, pushing carbon dioxide emissions up rather than down.