US Company Aims to Reopen a Retired Nuclear Power Plant

04 May 2023

About one year ago, a company that usually takes apart closed nuclear power centers, bought one in the state of Michigan.

Holtec Decommissioning International purchased the Palisades Nuclear Generating Station in the western part of Michigan.

The company planned to take radioactive materials from the center, make the buildings safe and prepare the land along Lake Michigan for future use.

FILE - Older nuclear power plants, such as this one in California, and a currently closed one in Michigan, are seeing new life as the U.S. looks to reduce energy pollution. (AP Photo/Michael A. Mariant, File)
FILE - Older nuclear power plants, such as this one in California, and a currently closed one in Michigan, are seeing new life as the U.S. looks to reduce energy pollution. (AP Photo/Michael A. Mariant, File)

A new plan

But after a short time, company leaders started thinking about restarting energy production at the plant.

That is because a law passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Joe Biden in late 2021 included $6 billion to keep older nuclear plants open.

Those who run Holtec thought they could use some of that money to fix some of the plant's problems and reopen it.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and other Michigan leaders supported Holtec's plan. So, the company wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm and asked the federal government for money to help bring the plant back into operation.

Local leaders said the power plant will bring jobs back to the area. State leaders, such as Whitmer, said the power from the plant would be important for Michigan's economy.

Critics promise to fight

But critics of the plant said it had many problems when it was opened under the earlier owner, Entergy.

In fact, Entergy closed the center earlier than planned because a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) report showed many problems. One of the problems was with a device that controls the plant's nuclear reaction.

Kevin Kamps opposes the plan to reopen the Palisades plant. He works for the nonprofit group Beyond Nuclear. He said he would "fight this proposal at every turn" and said the plan was risky.

Independent experts say reopening a nuclear plant like Palisades would be difficult.

Jacopo Buongiorno is a nuclear engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He said restarting the plant would be "a massive challenge."

But it is costly to build new nuclear plants. And there are not yet other methods that can equal the production of a nuclear plant like Palisades that are as clean.

While there are safety concerns about nuclear power, it does not produce any pollution. The Biden administration is looking for ways to cut the pollution linked to energy.

Money and more

One way to reduce pollution is to extend the life of older nuclear plants. In 2022, the Department of Energy awarded a plant in California $1.1 billion to stay open. It was to be closed down starting in 2024.

Holtec believes it will need a similar amount of money to reopen Palisades. It applied for a $1 billion loan from the U.S. government and asked Michigan for $300 million.

Kelly Trice is Holtec's president. He said the company will need help. For example, he said Holtec would need a utility company to buy the power from the plant. Trice did not say the exact cost of reopening the plant.

Holtec would also need government permission to reopen the plant. That would only come after years of repair work to fix the problems in the NRC report.

The Palisades plant would also have to get new uranium fuel. All the old fuel has been moved to safe holding areas and cannot be used again.

Those are some of the barriers to reopening. However, the plant's buildings are still standing, and the company still has about 220 of 600 employees.

If the plant receives permission to start up again, it would be the first time a closed plant reopened.

But many people are worried about the plant's poor safety history.

Edwin Lyman is one of them. He is the director of nuclear power safety with the Union of Concerned Scientists. He said regular safety inspections have not been going on for the last year and the NRC has not recently looked at the plant.

What next?

A spokesman for Holtec said the company would only consider restarting the plant if it were safe. Holtec said if the NRC rejects the plan or if there were a financial problem, it would go back to the first idea of taking apart the plant. That would be costly, too. Holtec said last year it would cost over $600 million.

If that turns out to be the plan, Michigan leaders are concerned Holtec has underestimated the budget. Dana Nessel is the Michigan Attorney General. She said if the costs run too high, the people of Michigan will have to pay for the difference.

If the plan to bring the plant back works, it will make some people happy. Energy costs in Michigan will likely go down. The Palisades plant produced five percent of the state's supply.

But that means some people will worry about a nuclear accident.

Kraig Shultz lives about 80 kilometers from the plant. He thought he did not have to worry about an accident any longer.

He likes being close to the lake and enjoying nature. So, he is worried that an accident would make him move his family away from a place he loves.

Shultz said: "We're playing a losing game when we keep running something until it fails."

I'm Jill Robbins. And I'm Dan Friedell.

Dan Friedell adapted this story for Learning English based on a report by the Associated Press.


Words in This Story

massive–adj. something very large

challenge –n. anything that is difficult to do

utility company –n. a class of company that provides the public with a needed service like water, electricity or gas