Report: Illinois’ aging nuclear reactors have been ignoring regulators


The Dresden and Braidwood reactors are two that the NRC noted as susceptible to flooding. (Victoria Williamson | The DePaulia)

There is an invisible, looming threat lurking alongside Illinois’ rivers and lakes. Nuclear power plants that have outdated backup power systems and are vulnerable to flooding, but the state’s nuclear reactors have been ignoring years of warnings, according to a Better Government Association (BGA)  investigation.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the federal agency that oversees the nation’s nuclear power plants, have ordered Exelon to test systems which are critical to the safe operations of their plants,

Nuclear power plants provide clean energy, with no emissions apart from the discarded nuclear material. This, coupled with the cheap electricity they provide, make them a desirable power source.

But they can be extremely volatile and prone to catastrophic malfunctions. Illinois has the most nuclear power plants of any state in the country, and ignoring regulators’ warnings has the potential to lead the state, and the nation, into a disaster if a mishap occurs.

Nuclear power plants use the energy from nuclear material to boil water, similar to the way a coal plant works. They also need water to keep the reactors cool, so this large appetite for water means the plants have to be near abundant fresh water, like rivers or lakes.

Yuki Miyamoto, a DePaul professor who specializes in nuclear ethics, said that it is critical for the owners of these plants to follow safety regulations because they are aging and require more attention.

“Nuclear power plants originally have a life of 40 years,” Miyamoto said. “But now we are extending the limit, as we have not built any new ones since the Three Mile Island accident.”

Two reactors the NRC found problematic were in Byron, IL and Braidwood, IL, which is only 53 miles southeast of Chicago. The NRC found faulty valve systems that are designed relieve water pressure in the event of an accident, according to the BGA’s report. These faulty valve systems, and the dismissal of their critical conditions, were what led to the nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island in 1979.

If a reactor floods, radiation could seep into the rivers and lakes that the power plants use to keep the reactors cool. But people also depend on those water sources for drinking water, and contamination could cause a national emergency.

“Not knowing the magnitude of the flood, it is extremely hard to know what to expect and how far it would reach,” Miyamoto said. “I do know even as the spilled radiation would affect the lives of residents of Chicago, the authorities would assure people, ‘It’s not dangerous.’”

Laura Hood is a DePaul student who is from Dresden, IL – where there is a nuclear power plant the NRC has deemed vulnerable to floods along the Illinois River. She said growing up that close to a nuclear reactor didn’t cross her mind until she was in high school and the Fukushima reactor melted down in Japan.

“It was always one of those things that you never really noticed,” Hood said. “Just another weird building in the middle of nowhere. But they are really dangerous and knowing my family still lives so close to one makes me nervous.”

Hood’s family is in the agriculture business, growing soybeans on their farm about 8 miles away from the Dresden reactor.  If an incident occurs, it could contaminate farmland for thousands of years. Depending on the severity of the accident, it could leave farming communities with radiation-laden soil.

When told the reactor near her family’s home is susceptible to flooding, she said she “can’t believe no one is doing anything about it.”

Michael Serrano, a chemical engineering student, believes that nuclear power is effective if used properly, but should not be put near any community’s drinking water.

“The risk-reward for having a reactor on Lake Michigan is extremely low,” Serrano said. “Millions of people would be out of drinking water (if an incident occurred).”