Zion Station

The Zion Station was a nuclear power plant in Zion, Illinois, which is located about halfway between downtown Chicago and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The power plant borders the 4,000-acre Illinois Beach State Park. After producing electricity for over 20 years, the plant shut down and began the process of decommissioning in 2010.

Construction of the Zion Nuclear Power Plant began in December 1968. The Operating license for the first reactor was given in April 1973, while the plant received the license for the second reactor in November 1973. Actual commercial operation for Unit 1 did not begin until December 1973, and the Unit 2 went online almost one year later in September 1974. The Zion Nuclear Power Plant was designed and constructed by Westinghouse Construction, but it was owned and operated by Commonwealth Edison. Electricity from the plant served the North Chicago area. When the plant ceased operations, it was owned and operated by Exelon.

In September 1996, Exelon shut down reactor 2 of the Zion Station in preparation for decommissioning. Reactor 1 shut down in February 1997. By February 1998, all remaining fuel in the reactors had been transferred to the spent fuel pool. The Zion Station decommissioning process began in September 2010. The project is expected to take 10 years to complete and cost a total of $1 billion. This is the largest nuclear power plant decommissioning project in the history of the United States. It will require from 200 to 400 workers each year to carry out the decommissioning plan.

Before the decommissioning process began, The Nuclear Regulatory Commission allowed Exelon to transfer ownership to EnergySolutions, who will carry out the dismantling of the plant and processing of the nuclear waste. This is the first time a nuclear station license was allowed to be transferred to another company for decommissioning. EnergySolutions is headquartered in Salt Lake City and has experience in nuclear plant decommissioning.

During the decommissioning of the Zion Station, Exelon will continue to own the plant’s nuclear fuel. It will remain secured at the Zion Station site until the Yucca Mountain National Repository in Nevada, a facility for containing nuclear waste, finishes construction. The fuel is contained in dry containment casks stored outdoors, as federal regulations mandate. After the waste is transferred, the U.S. government will assume ownership of the waste. The decommissioning process is scheduled to be completed in 2020. At that time, the site will be available for unrestricted commercial use. However, the electrical switchyard, an integral part of the local grid, will continue to operate on the property.

Besides the presence of nuclear materials, former employees and those currently working to decommission the plant must also be aware of the risk of asbestos exposure, which was likely used in the facility’s construction. Because of the heat generated in these plants, asbestos, a strong insulator, was frequently used in both the facility construction and as a component on the equipment, like the turbines. Like the presence of radioactive material, asbestos exposure can lead to the development of devastating medical conditions, including a form of cancer known as mesothelioma.