Zion Nuclear Power Plant’s cooling towers and other plant infrastructure have been dismantled since this photo taken in 2010 prior to the start of decommissioning. Currently, work crews are canning the 257-acre site for contaminated soil. Decommissioning is expected to be complete by the end of the year.
Courtesy of contractor Zion Solutions
When nuclear plants close, there’s a ripple effect. Ask Zion, Ill.
“Everyone got the the benefit of the plant providing power to the grid. But now that it's closed down, it’s our problem.”
Emily is a reporter for WITF who’s been covering voting and elections since July 2019 as part of her former role with statehouse accountability news organization PA Post. She was the senior reporter for statewide public media collaboration Keystone Crossroads. Previously, she covered city hall for PennLive/The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.), was a watchdog and city hall reporter at The Press of Atlantic City and reported for the Northwest Herald. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.
This March marks the 40th anniversary of the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. PA Post is collaborating with WITF and PennLive on a multimedia, monthlong look at the accident, its impact and the future of TMI and the nuclear industry. That includes new documentary television and radio programs, long-form audio stories, photos, and digital videos. The work will include the voices of people affected as well as community events to engage with listeners, readers and viewers.
(Zion, Ill.) — Three Mile Island is set to be Pennsylvania’s first decommissioned nuclear power plant. But other facilities across the commonwealth will have to go through it eventually, too.
With more than a dozen plants in other states already shuttered, or close to it, there are questions about what Pennsylvanians might learn from those communities.
The nuclear facility in Zion, Illinois, opened less than a year before TMI went online, over four decades ago.
Today, Zion’s in a relatively urgent situation that has mobilized elected leaders.
One of their efforts focuses on an issue that doesn’t get much attention:nuclear waste.
Congressional representatives from Illinois, which generates more nuclear power than any other state, have introduced versions of STRANDED starting in 2015. They’re slowly gaining more support – but not much, if any, from the delegation representing the No. 2 nuclear power generator: Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania representatives with plants in their districts didn’t respond to questions about whether they had concerns about the proposal or their thoughts about how to deal with the issue.
Senators Bob Casey and Pat Toomey also didn’t respond.
Illinois already passed nuclear industry subsidy legislation, following New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
But it doesn’t apply to Zion.
“We feel nobody cares,” says city administrator David Knabel. “Everyone got the the benefit of the plant providing power to the grid. But now that it’s closed down, it’s our problem.”
Most Zionites welcomed the plant in the first place because they expected economic benefits for their city, which is about the size of Lebanon and sits on Lake Michigan just south of the Illinois-Wisconsin border.
At its peak, the plant employed 1,200 people and paid nearly $20 million dollars a year in local property taxes.
“All of downtown was pretty much full of businesses, and doing better than it is now,” says Chris Daisy, who grew up in the city and moved back in recent years to take over his family’s Zion Cyclery. “I get zero foot traffic out of Zion.”
Daisy, 46, says the cyclery survives because it’s a specialty shop and has been around since the sixties.
It shares a block with an antique mall, which is for sale, a couple new eateries and a consignment shop.
Across the street, there’s a hotel that just opened a new restaurant inside (the last one closed after a year), a physical therapists’ office and a chain grocery store.
There are some empty storefronts, but not that many, along Sheridan Road, which is the city’s main drag. The streets there are clean and buildings mostly in good condition.
What you don’t see are the property tax bills. For some, they’ve quadrupled since the nuclear power plant closed. In fact, thisanalysis found Zion’s effective tax rate is triple the national average.
And in the city’s residential neighborhoods, for sale and for rent signs are abundant on many blocks. Collapsed roofs and boarded-up windows aren’t hard to spot, either.
Emily Previti / PA Post
Zion Lead Building Maintenance Inspector Robert Surano says developers got as far as building model homes for the Shepherd’s Crossing subdivision before abandoning the project in the midst of the housing crisis. The city’s had to reinforce the model units to prevent trespassing, Surano says.
The Zion Nuclear Power Plant was assessed at more than $200 million dollars in 1996 – nearly half of the city’s real estate base, city audits show.
Then, the next year, ComEd decided to permanently close the plant after 25 years, about 15 years earlier than expected.
The property’s assessed value proceeded to plummet – driving up everyone else’s taxes.
As the plant was dismantled, the trend continued.
Ballooning property taxes and the economic downturn drove away homeowners, and the city and public school district struggled to maintain, city officials say.
“My wife and I were looking for a little bit nicer of a house and jumped over the (Wisconsin) border, because the taxes are about half (of) what they are here,” Daisy says.
Daisy’s family is one of many to make the leap – so many, that it’s a known trend talked about all over town.
Bike mechanic Dwayne Moss moved into the city four years ago to be closer to work. Public schools weren’t a concern for him (that was a strike against Daisy staying in Zion) because his children are mostly grown up.
Moss, 51, also says money goes further in Zion’s rental market – and it’s a great area for riding.
“It’s perfect. I just go right out here on Sheridan,” says Moss, who immigrated to the U.S. at 16 years old from Belize, where cycling is huge. “North, south, either way – perfect, perfect routes.”
Riding amenities might be a niche draw to Zion, but inexpensive rents are not.
More than half of Zion’s residential units are renter-occupied. Nationwide, that ratio’s flipped.
Emily Previti / PA Post
Dwayne Moss is a bike mechanic at Zion Cyclery and lives in the city.
To clarify: nuclear host communities in Pennsylvania are unlikely to experience property tax problems as severe as in Zion.
Pa. municipalities never became as dependent on nuclear plants for tax revenue because they’ve received much less of it, partly due to the commonwealth’s tax structure for utilities through the 1990s.
Under the Pennsylvania Utility Realty Tax Act, the commonwealth collected utility taxes and disseminated the money among thousands of municipal entities throughout the state, as this Philadelphia Inquirer article explains.
PURTA payments to communities where plants were located ended up significantly lower than if the utility had been taxed like other commercial/industrial property. And once the law changed, utilities fought their new assessments and continued to pay less until settlements were reached. Ultimately, host communities got more more money than before, but less than what assigned property values alone would dictate.
Londonderry Township manager Steve Letavic says the $100,000 or so received each year from TMI will still be missed in an annual budget of about $2 million, even though the township has canceled its parks programs and cut its workforce through attrition since learning the plant was headed for closure.
That prep time is a key plus there versus Zion’s premature closure.
And state tax laws aside, the nuclear waste issue is universal. Just like in Zion, TMI’s spent fuel casks are stored on-site, with no plans to move them elsewhere.
Federal legislation signed into law earlier this year calls for a task force to assess best practices on community engagement surrounding nuclear decommissioning by 2020.
It’s needed. Hill says the community-advisory panel established in Zion lacked the authority or any recourse to demand information aside from whatever has been provided by plant operators, decommissioning contractor Zion Solutions or its parent Energy Solutions. For this story, Energy Solutions declined to answer questions that included confirming basic details such as whether decommissioning will be complete by the end of this year.
The proposed STRANDED Act would go further. It calls for communities to get $15 per kilogram of spent fuel rods on former nuclear power plant sites, a rate established by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982.
It also would set up a system to create transition plans for communities after the departure of a major industry or employer to avoid the devastation that can — and often does — occur, as seen before in Pennsylvania’s coal region and beyond.
STRANDED suggests giving tax breaks for first time homebuyers and businesses that relocate or expand there, too.
Illinois representatives first introduced the measure in 2015, and since have gained cosponsors from other states including California, New York, Maine and Wisconsin.
Even though Pennsylvania generates nuclear power is generated in the commonwealth than in any other state but Illinois, the commonwealth wasn’t on the legislation’s list of affected states, nor have its Congressional representatives seem interested.
Hill says, though, that some of the support from other states could be attributable to him and other Zion officials reaching out to their counterparts in communities elsewhere with plants in various stages of decommissioning. That didn’t include Pennsylvania, Hill says, because none of its plants are there yet.
Knabel notes that host towns tend to be relatively isolated, small populations. Indeed, Pa’s communities each is in its own county or region of the state (and congressional district). And their collective populations total less than 34,000 people. That number grows when adjacent communities — also affected, albeit less so — are taken into account, which the federal proposal would.
Meanwhile, back in Zion, the city government has scraped by as many do when they struggle financially: refinance some bonds, pare down the public workforce through attrition, delay infrastructure projects, exhale with relief over one-time cash infusions such as permit fees from a big construction job.
“We’ve got a $1.6 million deficit that we’re looking at next year. And over the past four or five years, we’ve had deficits and we’ve had to cut, cut, cut,” says Knabel.
There’s a 1 percent sales tax on the ballot this spring, notes Mayor Al Hill, which would help generate some income.
But the last fiscally-driven ballot measure sought home rule, which would mean more local taxing authority, and it failed. Hill isn’t banking on different results this time.
“People are fed up,” Hill says. “The tax rate is extremely high.”
The referenda aim to work around limits on increasing the annual tax levy, which state law restricts to the lesser of the Consumer Price Index or 5 percent. At the same time, Illinois municipalities must cover contributions to city worker pensions in amounts determined by a state board (municipal retirement funds are locally controlled in Pennsylvania, though teachers have a statewide system) and often grow by more than the tax cap.
Zion could get the home-rule designation automatically, if its population reaches 25,000.
So, that all depends on the next census.
Knabel says they’re also awaiting a court ruling on a lawsuit over medical marijuana licensing, filed after the city successfully courted a cannabis company in an attempt to bring in more jobs and tax revenue.
“Everything we have, it’s a year or two before we actually see the benefit from it,” Knabel says.
Illinois law doesn’t provide for municipal bankruptcy. The state reserves the power to take over financially distressed communities, but never has.
“We’re trying everything we can to avoid that,” Knabel says.
But he acknowledges it could be imminent, depending on which potential moves the city is able to make — and when.
Editor’s note: This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Londonderry Township Manager Steve Letavic’s name.
Climate Solutions, a collaboration of news organizations, educational institutions and a theater company, uses engagement, education and storytelling to help central Pennsylvanians toward climate change literacy, resilience and adaptation. Our work will amplify how people are finding solutions to the challenges presented by a warming world.