An aerial view of the Dresden Nuclear Power Station near Morris, Illinois.
The Dresden Nuclear Power Station near Morris, Illinois. Credit: Nuclear Regulatory Commission / Creative Commons

The following commentary was written by Corie Glenn, Susan Korn and Carolyne Joseph. Glenn is a representative of US Women in Nuclear (US WIN) who resides in Bolingbrook, Illinois; Korn of Naperville and Joseph of Morris are both Illinois-based members of Mothers for Nuclear. See our commentary guidelines for more information.

As our country grapples with critically important decisions on climate and infrastructure, one thing remains clear here at home: We need to get serious about Illinois’ clean energy future if we intend to meet our state’s commitment to 100% clean energy.

There are no easy solutions or silver bullets here. However, while charting our path forward, we should lean into our state’s strong legacy of clean energy innovation and nuclear power leadership before we lose the precious progress we’ve already made. As three women who are a part of Illinois’ nuclear energy community, we believe recognizing the innovative women who laid the foundation for our state’s clean energy leadership is a good place to start.

From Leona Woods Marshall, the only woman on the team that built the world’s first nuclear reactor in Chicago in 1942, to Maria Goeppert Mayer, who was the second of only three women to win the Nobel Prize in physics and who worked alongside Leona at the Argonne National Laboratory, these women represent two of the countless who have given us our largest and most reliable source of carbon-free energy in Illinois and across the country.

The contributions that they and so many others made to advance nuclear energy solidified Illinois’ position as a center for innovation, and we owe it to our communities and future generations to learn from their legacies today if we have any intention of meeting our ambitious commitments.

Clean energy has come a long way in the wake of Marshall, Mayer, and other women who helped build our energy system — and it’s encouraging to see Illinois continue to lead the way in affordable, reliable and clean energy production. It’s a point of pride for us that nuclear energy provides nearly 88% of the state’s clean energy and 50% of its overall power. In 2019 alone, nuclear power avoided more than 62 million metric tons of carbon emissions being released into the air while generating enough clean energy to power 11.1 million homes — twice the number of homes in the entire state. In addition, just four of Illinois’ six nuclear power plants currently support more than 28,000 jobs in the state and generate $180 million in state and local taxes.

From an environmental, public health and economic perspective, these nuclear plants are the lifeblood of the communities in which they operate — and that is even more true today than it was in 1942.

However, the battle for Illinois’ clean energy future is far from over – and much of our state’s legacy and leadership could be completely erased. Because of unfair energy markets which don’t value the benefits of carbon-free energy, the Byron and Dresden nuclear plants may be forced to close prematurely this year. These premature closures would lead to a loss of 30% of the state’s carbon-free energy and cause a 20-million-ton increase in annual CO2 emissions from the electricity sector, sacrificing half of the total progress our state has made in meeting our commitment of a 25%-28% greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction by 2025. This is an unacceptable loss, and we refuse to give up the clean energy economy built by the women before us.

For Illinois to remain a leader in clean energy, we need to lean into the legacy built by Illinois’ women in nuclear power.

Gov. Pritzker made a clear commitment to further establishing Illinois as a national leader in clean energy with his goal of reducing GHG emissions by a quarter in the next 5 years and reaching 100 percent clean energy — and that’s a great start. But rhetoric isn’t enough, and we have to remember that our efforts to decarbonize will impact the next generation more than they affect us. We owe it to the future generations of Illinoisans to preserve and expand all the tools at our disposal to decarbonize as soon as possible, and nuclear energy must be a part of that solution.

At Mothers for Nuclear and Women in Nuclear, we’re focused on building a better future — not only for clean energy workers, but everyone who will benefit from reliable, carbon-free power in Illinois and across the country. To achieve these goals, we must pursue innovative policy solutions that will allow nuclear energy and renewables to flourish in our state, including by expanding investments in clean energy projects and fully evaluating the benefits of clean energy sources within our market structures. Illinois’ clean energy legacy and future depend on it.