Tom McIntyre's In-Depth Look into Clinton's Nuclear Power Plant

Future of Energy Remains Cloudy

By WEEK Reporter

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November 15, 2010 Updated Nov 15, 2010 at 2:50 PM CST

There is a lot of talk about wind energy and "FutureGen," the clean coal plant, as being the future of energy in Illinois.

But, the state of Illinois gets a majority of its electrical power from nuclear energy.

Surprised?

Illinois has more nuclear plants than any other state- six power plants, eleven reactors.

The closest is in Clinton, producing enough electricity to power a million homes.

The big blue plant that is the Clinton power station is easily seen off Illinois route 54.

Some of the 700 men and woman who work there will tell you their friends and neighbors don't know there is a nuclear plant in Dewitt County, and when told so, make nervous comments about workers glowing in the dark.

This week, local folks were invited to Clinton to get an idea of what goes on at the plant.

During a tour of a mock-up of the plant's control center, the question of plant safety was inevitable.

People had questions like, "How much of the systems are manual versus automatic, as far as safety is concerned?"

"All of the safety systems are designed to operate as if the whole control room team had been taken out by a terrorist," answered officials.

September 11th changed a lot of things at Clinton, the most visible being their towers.

Behind the darkened windows, armed security can see all around the plant.

"For years and years and years, this industry was concerned about what might happen because of malfunctions or whatever internally," said Bill Harris, Clinton Power Plant Communications Manager. "Unfortunately, after 9/11, we started thinking about what happens externally."

Harris is retired military.

Many of the employees get into the industry by way of the U.S. Navy's nuclear program.

"All of these barriers you can see, lots and lots and lots of barriers, physical steel reinforced barriers and the razor wire and the cattle-gates or turnstiles. Plus we have sniffers. We have metal detectors, and we have X-Ray machines." said Harris.

And behind these doors is what all that razor wire, guns and surveillance is to protect: the reactor core.

The room below the "blue dome" is where few are allowed or stay longer than necessary.

Sixty feet below this water (see picture) is a controlled nuclear reaction, powered by bundles of uranium pellets protected by a stainless steel core eight inches thick.

The chain reaction inside the core generates heat.

Water circulating through the reactor then creates steam.

That steam then powers a generator to make electricity, a huge assembly inside a very large room inside a concrete wall.

Clinton has been on-line since 1987, the same year the Illinois General Assembly passed legislation requiring the federal government to come up with a storage solution for radioactive waste before new plants could be built in Illinois.

So, the radioactive waste generated at Clinton stays at Clinton.

Bill Harris sees that as a glass half-full, saying there could come a time when those spent fuel rods could be reused.

"There’s about ninety percent of the energy in one of those modules remaining after operating for two years in the reactor," said Harris. "There may be a chance that at some point in time we can recycle."

As former President George W. Bush said, “It’s time for this country to start building nuclear power plants again."

Barack Obama has also been pushing for more nuclear plants, but the future of nuclear power in America remains cloudy.

The problem facing the nuclear power industry is that these plants are so incredibly, incredibly expensive to build.

According to Obama, $8 billion.

That’s how much money the administration is guaranteeing in loans to build the first nuclear plants in 30 years.

However, nuclear energy must now compete with wind and solar power, as well as coal and natural gas power plants.

"You know, I think everybody in this industry is kind of learning right now about just what the United States needs to face the energy demands it has."

One example: Exelon, the owner of the Clinton nuclear power plant, just bought 36 wind farms.

The cost of those wind farms... $900 million.

The cost to build Clinton- $2.6 billion- 23 years ago.