COVERT — In less than 400 days, Palisades Power Plant in Covert will stop producing nuclear power.
But activities at the plant will be far from over.
The plant will close for operation by May 31, 2022, but then the decommissioning process will begin.
At least that’s the plan.
Entergy Corp., which owns Palisades, has agreed to sell and transfer its site license to Holtec International upon closure so that Holtec may complete decommissioning.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is currently reviewing those plans, and will either approve or deny the transfer of the Palisades Power Plant and its Nuclear Decommissioning Trust funds to Holtec by the end of the year.
If the transfer is successful, Holtec plans to have the plant decommissioned by 2041.
Palisades employs about 600 workers and has operated on the shores of Lake Michigan since 1971.
During its last year of operation, those employees will continue to operate the plant, while considering their future.
“Entergy’s focus remains the safe, secure and reliable operation of Palisades until its permanent shutdown,” Nick Culp, senior government affairs manager for Palisades, said,
As part of the plant closure, Entergy has committed to finding a position within the company for any qualified Palisades employee who is willing to relocate.
“Entergy is also actively in the process of staffing the plant’s Phase 1 organization with current Palisades employees who will remain on site after shutdown for purposes of decommissioning,” Culp said.
He said the Holtec team has committed to offering employment to those Phase 1 employees, which will be about 260 people. In addition, Holtec will honor all existing collective bargaining agreements.
Other Palisades employees will seek employment elsewhere or retire.
Palisades completed its last refueling outage in October 2020 and will run continuously until next year.
A community eye
Late last year, Van Buren County announced it would form a Palisades Community Advisory Panel to provide for open communication, public involvement and education on the decommissioning of the plant.
John Faul, the current administrator for Van Buren County, will move into a new role as Palisades project director starting July 2, and will head up this panel.
“Basically, the panel will monitor and disseminate info. on the decommissioning process given by the NRC and the owner. It will be oversight in nature as it is federally controlled,” he said recently.
Faul said the members will be skewed toward local representatives (political, business, schools, citizens) of the Covert Township, South Haven Township and South Haven city area with other county members, public safety, environmental groups and state officials.
“The hope is that each member will bring questions from their stakeholders and act as a resource to them as well to provide updates on such things as the status/timeframe of the decommissioning, radiological reports, and status of the decommissioning fund, etc.,” he said.
The Van Buren County Board of Commissioners is set to consider the final draft of the charter, bylaws and membership list at its next meeting on May 11.
Paying close attention
While Palisades will have a local panel watching the decommissioning process, nuclear watchdog groups will continue their decades-long oversight.
Kevin Kamps, a radioactive waste specialist with Beyond Nuclear and Don’t Waste Michigan, said once the plant stops generating nuclear energy, the risks don’t end entirely.
“The risk will move into the storage pool, where the majority of the irradiated fuel still resides at Palisades,” he said. “There’s plenty of waste onsite, in the pool and in the dry casks. And there’s a lot of radioactive contamination of not only the facilities, but the land, the soil and the ground water as well as the flora and fauna.”
That’s why Holtec’s plan to complete decommissioning in just 19 years is concerning.
“We’re really calling for a comprehensive radiological cleanup of that site,” Kamps said. “Radioactivity may be invisible to the human eye and other senses, but it is very hazardous and deadly, so anything left behind will not only be a hazard to people living near the site, but people who may visit the site or live on it in the future.”
This concern, along with various aspects of Holtec’s corporate character, are why Beyond Nuclear, Don’t Waste Michigan, the Environmental Law & Policy Center and the Michigan attorney general have all filed petitions with the NRC to stop the transfer.
In February, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel filed a petition to intervene in the transfer.
A trust fund of about $550 million was created with ratepayer funds to provide for the decommissioning of Palisades. Holtec is seeking to use that fund to decommission Palisades, as well as handle the site restoration and fuel management cost.
In her petition, Nessel explains that she is concerned that Holtec does not possess the financial qualifications or assurances necessary to complete such a risk-intensive project, according to a news release.
The petition claims that Holtec has significantly underestimated the costs for actual decommissioning, thus threatening the health and safety of Michigan residents.
It also questions Holtec’s exemption request to use the decommissioning funds for site restoration and nuclear fuel management without providing evidence of other funding sources.
Kamps said site restoration and nuclear fuel management are considered non-decommissioning related expenses.
“What’s really alarming to us about that is that there is a lot of radioactive contamination of that site, so every dollar not spent on radiological cleanup is that much more radioactive contamination left behind, which will eventually flow into the environment and harm people,” he said.
What decommissioning looks like
Once the plant closes, a process will begin to get the site’s radioactivity down to acceptable levels: 25 millirem a year, The Herald-Palladium reported in 2017. A millirem is the measure of radiation the body absorbs as it’s exposed to radioactive material.
In the environment, humans are exposed to about 620 millirem a year. Half of that is from natural radiation sources, like radon and uranium in the soil and the other half is from x-rays and other medical technology.
The nuclear fuel rods are removed from the nuclear reactor as soon as a nuclear power plant is closed.
The fuel is then placed into the spent fuel pool for at least a year for cooling, according to NRC regulations. Then it is transferred to dry casks.
Holtec will have to dismantle buildings and any other contaminated materials and store it like the spent nuclear fuel.
Nuclear plants are given 60 years to decommission based on a calculation involving cobalt 60. Cobalt 60 is an isotope used in the steel around the reactor because of its hardening abilities.
Kamps said one issue folks should pay attention to is Holtec’s plan to export the irradiated nuclear fuel from the Palisades site.
This could involve barges on Lake Michigan or ground transport via large trucks and trains.
“Those shipments will have direct impacts on the local area,” Kamps said. “Barge shipments, especially, raise all sorts of questions about what if it sinks? What are the potential consequences of that? So those transportation impacts, if Holtec gets its way, are very significant and shorter term than most people realize.”
The NRC has said it has regulations to ensure the safety of transporting nuclear material.
Holtec will have the burden of demonstrating to the NRC that the site’s radioactivity is down to acceptable levels before the site is released for redevelopment.
Culp said if Entergy were to continue to own Palisades, it might take the company the entire 60 years to decommission the plant.
“The safe and timely decommissioning of the site is particularly important for the local community, which could benefit from the site being repurposed,” he said.
Entergy and Holtec announced the post-shutdown sale of Palisades for purposes of decommissioning in August 2018, pending regulatory approval and transaction close. The transaction also includes the sale of the decommissioned Big Rock Point site in Charlevoix, Mich.