For Clinton residents, nuclear plant's 'impact is significant'
Folks in the Clinton area have enjoyed an economic cushion the last 30 years or so, courtesy of Exelon Corp.'s Clinton Power Station.
The nuclear plant, which began commercial operation in 1987, employs 652 people and has an annual payroll of $54 million.
When the plant shuts down periodically for refueling, as many as 2,000 workers flood into the plant site to provide maintenance.
Last year, Exelon paid about $13 million in taxes to area governments, with the biggest chunk — $8.5 million of it — going to the Clinton school district.
During the last few decades, tax revenues from Exelon helped build a new courthouse for DeWitt County, a modern library in Clinton and new elementary and junior high schools in town.
The plant is licensed to operate for 12 more years — until 2026 — but rough times for the nuclear industry are fueling speculation that Exelon may cut short the plant's life.
Exelon warned in February that it may shut down nuclear plants if economic prospects for the industry don't improve.
The Clinton plant is a single-unit plant far removed from Exelon's other Illinois plants, most of which are double-unit plants clustered near the Chicago metropolitan area.
Several analysts — both last year and early this year — have suggested Clinton may be ripe for closure.
Low wholesale power prices and weak demand for electricity have put pressure on the nuclear industry, and Clinton is seen as vulnerable because its costs are higher as a stand-alone plant.
Exelon has not publicly specified Clinton as a target for shutdown, but folks who live nearby realize a closure could affect their way of life.
Although the city of Clinton itself does not draw taxes from the plant, the loss of the plant would stand to depress the local housing market, said Clinton Mayor Carolyn Peters.
"We have people who work out there, and they're not all ready to retire," she said. "They have good-paying jobs and live in probably some of our nicer homes."
Plus, city residents pay DeWitt County taxes, and if the plant were to close, the county may well have to raise taxes to make up for lost revenue from the plant.
"If taxes are very high, nobody will want to locate here," Peters said. "We depend on people moving in and settling here."
Jeff Holmes, superintendent of the Clinton school district for the last 12 years, said if federal dollars aren't counted, Exelon provides about 53 percent of local property taxes for the district.
"We know that the state of Illinois will not make that up in terms of general state aid," he said. "The impact is significant."
Having a nuclear plant nearby "has allowed us to have staff necessary to carry out programs," he said, citing the hiring of special education aides plus art and music teachers for the elementary schools.
"It's allowed us to update facilities in the school district and to pay faculty and staff a fair wage," Holmes said.
The economic effect of the Clinton nuclear plant goes far beyond DeWitt County. Exelon said many of its employees commute from Champaign, Macon and McLean counties.
If the plant were to close, it "would have a huge impact across the building trades," said Shad Etchason, business manager for Decatur-based Local 146 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and president of the Decatur Building and Construction Trades Council.
Numbers fluctuate, but "during a typical outage, we're talking about 1,000 craftsmen up there for two to three months," depending on when hiring starts, Etchason said.
Planned outages typically last 18 to 30 days, but sometimes planning work requires workers to be there four to six months in advance, he said.
Workers come not only from Local 146's jurisdiction, but also from across the state and nation, Etchason said. They include "travelers" who move from one nuclear plant to another to do maintenance.
For the trades, there's no debating the importance of the plant.
"For us, it's pretty black and white," Etchason said. "Those are good jobs — jobs that put skilled craftsmen to work. ... I hope (a closure) doesn't happen."
That coming-and-going of workers has added to the well-being of many businesses in the Clinton area, said City Administrator Tim Followell.
"The employee base is so diverse and comes from so many different areas," he said. "One thing that spins off it is the amount of daily dollars spent at restaurants, or getting gas going home. It's a constant trickle of ... dollars spent out of employees' pockets."
Civic organizations also reaped the benefits of having a major company in their back yard.
According to Exelon, the plant provided more than $100,000 in direct support to area groups in 2013, including employee pledges to the United Way.
Among local organizations Exelon has supported are Habitat for Humanity of DeWitt County, the Clinton Community YMCA, Big Brothers Big Sisters in Clinton and the Clinton Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau, company spokesman William Harris said.
Employees from the plant helped rebuild the kitchen at the DeWitt County Friendship Center, the local senior center, Followell said.
Plus, the company donated $50,000 to help remake Woodward Park, including construction of the Exelon Nuclear KidZone playground.
"They sent a team of engineers who assembled a climbing wall that everyone was terrified of," Followell said.
"They've been very, very supportive of the community," he continued. "When the city used to have a summer concert series on the square, Exelon was the biggest contributor to it. They've been a better partner to this community than just a taxpayer."
Not that Exelon loves paying taxes any more than anyone else.
The company has protested the equalized assessed valuation of the Clinton plant, claiming it's worth $70 million, rather than $240 million.
At one time, Holmes said, the plant's equalized assessed valuation was close to $500 million. When the value of the plant dropped to $100 million over five years, the school district had to reduce staff by about 25 percent, he said.
The plant gradually regained some of its value, as the stigma of nuclear plants diminished, the need for electricity grew and the plant's efficiency increased, Holmes said.
But now Exelon believes the assessed valuation should go down again.
"What's happening in the industry now is there's an abundance of natural gas," Holmes said. "It's now a more competitive market, with this large amount of natural gas driving profits down."
Plus, nuclear has to compete with alternate energy sources, such as wind energy, that are subsidized, he added.
Those are some of the factors influencing Exelon's consideration of closing nuclear plants. In Springfield, there's been talk of creating clean energy credits that might benefit the nuclear industry — and perhaps prevent the closure of plants.
Marjorie DeVore, a retired physical education teacher who remains an active volunteer in the community, said the biggest boost to DeWitt County's economy came during construction of the Clinton plant.
That work began in 1976, lasted 11 years and ended up costing about $4.2 billion — many times what the plant's original owner, Illinois Power, initially estimated.
"When they built the plant, there were so many people in here," DeVore said. "I don't know how many thousand they had. So many people came at that time. They lived in rooms, trailers, motels, whatever, and spent a lot of money here. It was a boom the whole time it was going on."
"Probably every building downtown was full," she added.
DeVore said some people living northeast of Clinton didn't want to sell their farms and land to make way for the enormous plant site.
The plant is built on 14,300 acres, with a 5,000-acre cooling lake.
"We didn't realize how much that lake would be utilized," DeVore said. "People come here from every place to fish at that lake."
Marian Brisard, executive director of the Clinton Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau, said Clinton Lake draws fishermen year-round, particularly in summer.
It's the site of several fishing tournaments, Brisard said. Portions of the lake are warmed by the nuclear plant, and she wonders whether the lake would continue to attract tournaments if the plant were no longer operating and the water temperature dipped.
Brisard said Exelon has had a representative on the chamber's board of directors since 2000. She said other private-sector employers in DeWitt County don't employ nearly as many people as the nuclear plant.
Other area employers include: Trinity Structural Towers, which builds wind towers; Action Technology, which makes plastic tubing; R.R. Donnelley; and Monsanto Company.
Both Clinton Lake State Recreation Area and Weldon Springs State Park draw campers to the area, she added.
Some longtime residents of the Clinton area — such as former DeWitt County Sheriff Don Massey, now 89 — are philosophical about a possible closing of the plant.
"It would hurt us taxwise," Massey said. "Sure, we've benefited over the years. We've gotten used to it, and it would be difficult to adjust."
Others remain optimistic about the plant remaining in operation.
"It's been a good thing, and I hope it's here to stay," said Marjorie Lamont, as she ate lunch at Ted's Garage restaurant in Clinton with her husband Lynn. "The lake provides recreation — swimming and boating. It's brought lots of tourists. It's good for the town. It's good for everybody."
"I don't get too concerned," Lamont said. "We still have the lake if the plant closes."
About the Clinton power station
Location: About 6 miles east of Clinton, off Illinois 54; it's about 30 miles west of Champaign.
Owner: Exelon Corp., which acquired the plant in 1999 from Illinois Power.
Generation capacity: 1,065 net megawatts, enough to power 1 million homes.
Timeline: Construction began in 1976; commercial service started in 1987; operating license runs until 2026.
Employees: 652; technology and efficiencies have allowed that number to drop from when the plant first opened.
Exelon's other nuclear plants in Illinois: Byron, two-unit plant in Ogle County; Braidwood, two-unit plant near Grundy-Will county line; Dresden, two-unit plant in Grundy County; LaSalle, two-unit plant in LaSalle County; Quad Cities, two-unit plant in Rock Island County. Exelon also has nuclear plants in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Exelon results: Net income of $1.72 billion in 2013, up from $1.16 billion in 2012; that resulted in diluted earnings of $2 per share in 2013, up from $1.42 per share in 2012.