Nuclear Energy in the Midwest

Katy Shi
March 18, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: Location of Nuclear Power Plants in Illinois. (Source: K. Shi, after the Illinois Management Agency. [2])

The Midwest was the birthplace of nuclear energy. On December 2nd, 1942, Enrico Fermi and his colleagues successfully created the first controlled nuclear chain reaction. The power generated by this reaction was not enough to power a single lightbulb. Nonetheless, nuclear energy rose to prominence for decades. Like many regions in the US, the Midwest saw its nuclear boom in the 1960's and 1970's. Out of 99 nuclear power plants in the United States, 22 are in the Midwest, with 11 in Illinois alone (Fig. 1). However, the Midwest's low natural gas prices and its deregulated markets pose challenges for nuclear energy in the future.

The Future of Nuclear Energy

With natural gas prices in the Midwest remaining low, and the comparably high cost maintaining nuclear power plants, many nuclear plants are expected to shut down in coming years. Reports have predicted that plants in Illinois, Ohio, Nebraska, and Michigan will shut down by 2025. Many other nuclear power plants have licenses expiring around the same time. [1] In the past, shutdowns were usually reserved for privately owned plants, but have recently expanded to publicly owned ones as well. Even Illinois, which has 11 nuclear power plants and which derives 48% of its power from nuclear energy, the most of any state in the US, is not immune to the threats of shutdowns. [2] Like many other states, the electricity market in Illinois is deregulated, making it difficult for nuclear energy to compete with cheaper natural gas options. Because of this, nuclear plants become unprofitable despite presenting a clean alternative. In fact, according to Bloomberg, more than half of nuclear power plants are now running at a loss. [3] Most new nuclear power plant licenses are being granted in the Southeast, where power is still regulated.

One of the key issues that remains is the issue of disposal of nuclear waste. Currently, in the Midwest, nuclear waste is stored on-site at closed and operating nuclear power plants. Since the Yucca Mountain waste site was defunded during the Obama administration, there have been no concrete plans for a new permanent waste storage site, thus making running nuclear power plants in the Midwest incredibly expensive. At the same time, the lack of easy disposal makes it more difficult to shut down these plants, thus guaranteeing nuclear energy's place in the Midwest for the near future. Although research continues on effective ways to process nuclear waste beyond storing it in casks for hundreds of thousands of years, these methods may never have a chance to be implemented. Although some state governments, including Illinois, have provided subsidies to nuclear energy companies, these subsides are not enough to bring much needed technological updates to existing nuclear facilities that would make them safer and more efficient.

In addition, nuclear power plants are huge providers of jobs in the Midwest. Exelon, the company that operates many power plants in Illinois and elsewhere in the US, estimated that 4,200 jobs were saved due to subsidies provided by the Illinois government. [3] At the same time, local communities, such as Braidwood, IL, have experienced the negative effects of living near a nuclear reactor - water contamination and a suspected higher risk of leukemia. [4] In order for nuclear energy to survive in the future, either the government must act or the industry must adapt in order to make it a viable option.

© Katy Shi. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] M. Cooper, "Renaissance in Reverse: Competition Pushes Aging US Nuclear Reactors to the Bring of Economic Abandonment," Institute for Energy and the Environment, Vermont Law School, 18 Jul 13.

[2] "Nuclear Energy in Illinois," Illinois Emergency Management Agency, May 2009.

[3] J. Polson, "Why Nuclear Power, Once Cash Cow, Now Has Tin Cup," Bloomberg, 14 Jul 17.

[4] R. Lewis, "Does Illinois Have a Nuclear Future?," WBEZ, 14 Mar 13.