ZION, Ill. (AP) — Forty miles north of Chicago, along the shore of Lake
Michigan, gun-toting guards still warily prowl the grounds of the Zion
Nuclear Power Station.
Inside, the control room remains staffed by engineers who check radiation
levels throughout the plant. But their numbers are far fewer than before
1998, when the two reactors went permanently dark.
“A lot of people are surprised, because they think they’re going to find
tumbleweeds and the place just falling apart,” plant manager Ron Schuster
Schuster stood in the shadow of the 10-story building, its outer wall made
of reinforced concrete 3 feet thick, that houses one of the dormant
reactors. Workers venture inside only about twice a month now, for
inspections and maintenance.
A peregrine falcon swooped to the ledge of a nearby building where its
family has nested for the past few years a seemingly tranquil spot. But it’s
about to get a lot more hectic for any wildlife or workers at the power
Exelon Nuclear faces a November deadline to transfer its U.S. Nuclear
Regulatory Commission license to a Utah company called EnergySolutions,
which will then begin the seven-year task of dismantling the plant piece by
Although the timetable hasn’t been set, more than about 500,000 cubic feet
of material will be moved, everything from concrete walls, pipes, wiring,
machinery, even desks and chairs. Much of it is contaminated with low-level
radiation. Enough to fill roughly 80 rail cars, it will be transported to
EnergySolutions’ site 80 miles west of Salt Lake City.
It’s easier and cheaper than separating the contaminated material from the
uncontaminated, officials said.
The plan to end forever the nuclear generation of electricity at Zion comes
despite a nuclear renaissance of sorts. Some people including former
opponents of nuclear power see it as cleaner and potentially cheaper than
The NRC is reviewing applications that have been filed since 2007 for 22 new
reactors at 13 sites across the country, none of them in Illinois. The
flurry of interest follows a drought of nearly three decades since the last
application had been filed, officials said.
Exelon officials say the cost is too great to even consider firing up Zion’s
“Exelon has looked at restarting Zion on several occasions,” said Adam
Levin, director of spent fuel and decommissioning strategy at Exelon. “Each
time we’ve looked at it, we’ve decided that it just wasn’t feasible.”
EnergySolutions, based in Salt Lake City, is one of the few companies in the
nation licensed for the monumental task of tearing down nuclear power
The Zion plant which sits on 257 acres sandwiched between the northern and
southern stretches of Illinois Beach State Park will be among its largest
decommissioning projects, according to EnergySolutions spokesman Mark
The three years following the Zion plant’s dismantling will be spent
restoring the site to a field of green.
Estimated cost: $1 billion. ComEd customers began paying into that fund in
the late 1970s, a fee not removed from their bills until 2006.
The only remnant of Zion’s atomic past and it’s a big one will be an array
of concrete casks that look like stunted farm silos, storing about 2.2
million pounds of spent nuclear fuel and another 80,000 pounds of highly
radioactive material from the two reactors.
In March, the Department of Energy withdrew its request to store highly
radioactive waste deep within Yucca Mountain, Nev.
Like nuclear power plants across the country that had been casting envious
eyes on the western desert, Zion will be home for the foreseeable future to
the radioactive fuel it consumed generating electricity from 1973 to 1997.
The spent fuel will be moved from a pool of crystal-clear water to the “dry
storage” casks just south of where the twin reactor buildings now stand, and
remain there until the federal government comes up with an alternative to
“How long the fuel would remain is uncertain,” said NRC spokesman David
McIntyre. “The NRC believes the fuel can be stored safely for at least 100
years in pools and casks. However, the ultimate disposition of the fuel is a
national policy decision that is up to Congress and the administration.”
When it powered up in 1973, Zion was the largest nuclear plant in the world,
its reactors the first of a new generation designed to be bigger and safer.
But by the late 1990s, its owners struggled to keep the reactors online
because of multiple structural and procedural problems reported by the NRC.
ComEd, now a sister company of Exelon Nuclear, cited economics when it
finally decided to pull the plug.
Shutting the reactors down siphoned off hundreds of jobs, and Zion Mayor
Lane Harrison said the property’s tax value dropped by hundreds of millions
of dollars between 1999 and 2004.
“The schools have lost just a tremendous amount of money,” Harrison said.
NRC officials note that ComEd wasn’t the first or last utility unable to
generate profit with nuclear power. It will be up to the industry to
determine whether nuclear power’s needle is now pointing toward the black
side of the ledger book.
Zion had been licensed to operate through 2013, and might have been allowed
to extend that permit another 20 years. But once ComEd decided it was a
money-loser and removed nuclear fuel from the reactors, its license changed,
allowing it only to store radioactive waste on site, officials said.
No plant has ever “permanently” shut down and then asked to restart,
according to the NRC.
“There is no regulatory process,” said John Hickman, Zion project manager
for the reactor decommissioning branch of the NRC. “We’d have to start at
ground zero and look at the equipment to make sure it’s suitable. It’s not
like they mothballed the plant for future operation.”
Eight steam generators would have to be replaced, at a $1 billion cost that
is about the same as dismantling the plant, according to Exelon. And that
doesn’t include the price tag of getting the rest of the plant back to
Keeping the spent fuel and other highly radioactive waste in Zion is safer
than shipping it across the country to Yucca Mountain, said David Kraft,
director of the Chicago-based Nuclear Energy Information Service. The
watchdog group opposes nuclear power facilities.
“We are left with nothing but lesser-of-evil choices,” Kraft said.