Environment groups slam plan to reopen Michigan nuclear plant

Carol Thompson
The Detroit News

Dozens of environmental groups submitted a letter to federal energy officials Friday imploring them to deny funding to a New Jersey company seeking to reopen a west Michigan nuclear plant.

Palisades Power Plant should not be eligible for the Civil Nuclear Credit Program, a $6 billion fund created through the bipartisan infrastructure law, the groups argued in a Friday letter addressed to U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Department of Energy officials.

That's because Palisades shut down permanently in May, according to its new owner Holtec International and former owner Entergy Nuclear. The federal program states nuclear power reactors must be projected to cease operations because of economic factors — which the environment groups argue doesn't include Palisades because it is no longer producing or selling electricity.

The Palisades Nuclear Power Plant in Colvert, Michigan, shut down more than a week early in May 2022. By July, new owner Holtec International was applying for federal aid to reopen the decommissioned Palisades facility.

"It is unequivocally clear that the (program envisions) subsidizing only operating reactors under the Civil Nuclear Credit Program," the letter from environmental groups states. "The program simply does not contemplate funding a closed reactor that has terminated operations."

The Michigan Sierra Club, Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council and anti-nuclear groups across Michigan and the United States signed on to the letter.

Returning Palisades to the grid "would be a major success story" for Michigan and the U.S. because it would supply carbon-free power, said Nick Culp, Holtec senior manager of governmental affairs.

"We remain committed to working with our federal, state, and community partners throughout this process," Culp said in an email. "For the time being, our employees at Palisades remain focused on the safe and timely decommissioning of the site, allowing for potential reuse."

The Civil Nuclear Credit Program was designed to help existing nuclear plants with subsidies that help them overcome the economic challenges nuclear power has faced since the price of natural gas dropped. To qualify for credits, plant owners must demonstrate their plants are closing because of economic factors, that the closures will result in increased air pollution and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission must be able to provide "reasonable assurance" that the reactor can be operated with its current license and pose no significant safety hazards.

The prospect of returning Palisades to the power grid gained traction early this month after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's office announced Holtec had applied for Civil Nuclear Credit program funding in July. The company warned it also would need state funding to restart operations, which Whitmer said she is prepared to support.

Whitmer, a Democrat running for reelection, normally is on the same side as environmentalists on many issues. But they have diverged on Palisades.

There are hurdles to reopening. Palisades shut down more than a week early in May as a "a conservative decision based on equipment performance," U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Public Affairs Officer Prema Chandrathil said at the time. The control rod drive mechanism had a degrading seal.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission transferred Palisades' license from Entergy to Holtec "for the purpose of decommissioning Palisades" on June 28, the NRC said. All fuel was removed from the reactor on June 13.

The NRC has never received a request to return a nuclear plant to the grid after it was permanently defueled, so it is unclear what is in store for Holtec should it pursue a reopening of Palisades, NRC Senior Public Affairs Officer Viktoria Mitlyng said.

"If the NRC receives such a formal request for reauthorizing operation of a nuclear power plant after the operator has formally notified the NRC of permanent cessation of operations and permanent removal of fuel – as is the case with Palisades – the agency will determine a path forward accordingly, based on whatever facts and rationale are provided, to ensure the highest standards of safety," Mitlyng said in an email.

People gathered virtually and in South Haven on Thursday evening for a public hearing about Holtec's original plan for Palisades, which was to decommission the plant. Although the meeting agenda was supposed to be tailored to a decommissioning plan the company filed in 2020, many attendees voiced their support or disdain for the company's recent effort to reopen.

Kevin Kamps with the group Beyond Nuclear said he opposes giving federal aid to reopen the Palisades nuclear plant.

Lynne Goodman, who introduced herself during the hearing as a southeast Michigan resident and nuclear decommissioning consultant, said reopening Palisades would reduce carbon emissions and other pollution that comes from coal- and natural gas-powered plants.

"My health is being impacted by that," Goodman said. "I really think that the plant should be considered for restart so we are putting less polluted air into the state of Michigan."

Kevin Kamps, a radioactive waste specialist with the anti-nuclear group Beyond Nuclear, said regulators and the public had been swindled by Holtec, which took over Palisades with the promise to decommission it.

"It's too bad we had to find out on Sept. 9 that Holtec had made application on July 5 for this federal bailout and is demanding a state bailout," Kamps said. "We're going to challenge all of this. We're going to challenge the bailouts. We're going to challenge the license."