More than 20 years after its nuclear plant closed, Zion, Illinois, is still dealing with the financial and community repercussions of its loss, says its mayor.
Almost all of the $19 million in annual property taxes the dual-reactor plant paid while in operation — about half the town’s tax base — disappeared.
“In five years it went down to $750,000 a year,” Zion Mayor Al Hill said of tax payments from the plant. “We are still trying to figure out how to dig out from under financial troubles created by the closing 20 years later.”
Lacey Township, where the Oyster Creek nuclear plant just closed, is similar in size to Zion — both have populations of about 25,000. Both nuclear plants were owned and operated by Exelon Generation.
But differences in how reliant the towns are on property taxes from their plants may save Lacey from a similar fate.
Lacey has recently received about $2.3 million a year in property tax from the plant, and stands to lose much of that. The bulk of township funds related to the plant, however, has come through energy tax receipts amounting to $11 million a year.
The N.J. Department of Community Affairs, which oversees the distribution of the funds collected from ratepayers, has said the township will continue to receive that amount annually.
Lacey Township residents and Mayor Nicholas Juliano, however, worry that state legislators may change the law governing how the energy receipts are spent. The state has its own budget crisis, they said. That would leave Lacey in a similar position as Zion.
Zion is a suburban community 50 miles north of Chicago and a similar distance south of Milwaukee, on Lake Michigan. It had to eliminate 14 police officers, eight public works employees and five jobs in the building department, Hill said. The plant took up the city’s only property on Lake Michigan, and its 247 acres sit between two sections of preserved land at Illinois Beach State Park. Now the site is hosting tons of highly-radioactive nuclear waste. Even after decommissioning is finished — perhaps in about 2020 — no one will want to invest in building a resort or condos there with the waste still on site, said Hill.
Meanwhile, population hasn’t decreased. It has shifted to 60 percent renters, said city administrator David Knable, after real estate holding companies gobbled up cheap homes.
There has been an increase in Section 8 affordable housing residents, and people living under more financial stress, said Hill. That has meant more police and fire calls, at a time of diminished staff.
Property tax rates more than doubled, making it difficult to attract families. The rate now is about 6.5 percent of the property value, Knabel said, with 70 percent going to schools and 13 percent to the city, and small amounts to parks and recreation and the county.
Knable, 41, grew up in Zion but now lives in a different town. He characterizes the feeling in Zion as “a general funk.”
“There are a lot of good people trying to take on the fight ... trying against overwhelming odds to swim upstream,” said Knabel. “But they are tired.”
He worries that Exelon is not nearly as motivated as Zion to get good ratables on the site. If the company decides to sell the land to the state to add to the park, it would remove it from the tax rolls, he said.
“The entire country got benefits from the energy (produced at Zion), but now when it has closed down and the garbage is left, no one nationally is bearing the burden,” Knabel said.
Hill said the town knew when the plant was proposed it would have to live with the eyesore of it. But the plant brought in tax dollars and jobs, he said, so people decided to agree to the tradeoff.
“But now we have spent fuel storage,” Hill said, which wasn’t part of the agreement.
The federal government promised to provide long-term storage for the waste, spent billions on developing a storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, then the Obama Administration abandoned it.
The spent fuel at Zion is guarded by armed guards with automatic weapons 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“It’s behind a bunkered building,” Hill said, with the dry casks stored above ground. “You don’t need to do that if nothing can go wrong.”
Exelon officials said at a recent press conference that most of the 700 acre site in Lacey can be redeveloped after decommissioning, even with 753 metric tons of spent fuel stored there, and only the area right around the fuel would be off limits.
But Hill said it won’t be a high value development, such as condos or a resort. That would require a developer to risk too much money, should an accident or attack happen.
Hill, like Lacey Township’s Juliano, is trying to get his U.S. Senators to back a bill to pay towns that host nuclear plants for acting as interim storage facilities for spent fuel rods. The rods are leftover from plant operation and must be carefully stored for hundreds of years or more.
The bill, H.R. 3053, the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2018, is co-sponsored by New Jersey’s Republican Congressman Tom MacArthur.
The House of Representatives passed it in May, said MacArthur. But it has not come up for a vote in the Senate, and Juliano said he has not been able to get either of New Jersey’s senators to pay attention to the bill.
But the Energy and Water, Legislative Branch, and Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Act of 2019 — H.R. 5895 — has passed and requires the Department of Energy to report on funding for municipalities hosting closed nuclear power plants. It awaits President Donald Trump’s signature.
Exelon transferred its license for the Zion plant to EnergySolutions of Salt Lake City, Utah, for the decommissioning. But Exelon will take the property back and be responsible for longterm storage of spent fuel after the cleanup of the site.
EnergySolutions got control of a $680 million decommissioning fund paid for by ratepayers.
“It’s gone, and they are not done yet,” said Hill, who said the company must come up with the funds to finish. “They are going to finish. They want to do more (cleanups).”
Exelon wants to sell the Oyster Creek plant outright to Holtec International of Camden, which would take over its $900 million decommissioning fund, keep the land and be responsible for handling the spent fuel rods until the federal government finds a storage solution for them.
The NRC said it started reviewing the potential sale this week and usually takes about a year to make a decision. But it will try to finish its review in eight months, at the request of Holtec and Exelon.
Hill cautions Lacey officials and residents not to rely on Exelon.
“Be careful. They are not going to do anything for you,” said Hill. “They have a responsibility to their shareholders. Your responsibility is to your constituents.”