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Should the Infrastructure Investment Act Bail Out A Radioactive Atomic Reactor?

A coalition of concerned organizations and individuals has asked that Palisades Nuclear Plant be denied certification by the US Department of Energy to receive payments under DOE’s Civil Nuclear Credit Program.

An environmental coalition has pleaded — again — with US Energy Secretary Granholm to reject a massive bailout scheme at Palisades “zombie” atomic reactor.

At the end of January, a coalition of 115 organizations and 179 individuals, including 49 Michiganders, sent a letter to Granholm to reject Holtec Decommissioning International’s (HDI) requested billion dollar, or larger, federal bailout to restart the closed-for-good Palisades atomic reactor on the shore of Lake Michigan. These concerned signatories say that restarting a dangerously age-degraded nuke would risk health, safety, security, and the environment.

HDI has demanded state-level bailouts from Michigan for Palisades’ restart, for an amount rumored to be more than a billion dollars.

Palisades Power Plant in southwest Michigan was shut down permanently by Entergy on May 20, 2022, ending its 50+ year stint as an energy source. HDI’s “Post-Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Report and Decommissioning Cost Estimate for the Palisades” atomic reactor in Covert, Michigan was published on December 23, 2020.

In June, 2022, Palisades was purchased by HDI for the purpose of decommissioning of the site. On July 5, HDI secretly applied for its first bailout application, an act which spurred a similar outcry coalition letter to Granholm — a former Michigan governor as well as attorney general — on September 23, 2022. However, the US Department of Energy (DOE) rejected HDI’s Palisades bailout bid on November 18, 2022.

Persistence in Seeking a Palisades Atomic Reactor Bailout

In late 2022, Holtec announced it would again seek a DOE bailout for the second round of taxpayer-funded grants, established by the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s Civil Nuclear Credit Program.

The signatories to the letter to Granholm “request that the Palisades Nuclear Power Plant (‘Palisades’ or ‘PNP’), owned by Holtec International, be denied certification by the US Department of Energy (DOE) to receive payments under DOE’s Civil Nuclear Credit Program. For DOE to consider certifying Palisades a second time goes against the letter and spirit of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which authorized the Program.”

Beyond Nuclear, a non-profit that educates the public about nuclear power, explains that Congress intended the IIJA to support only currently operating commercial nuclear reactors that face termination of operations for economic reasons. Palisades permanently ended power generation activities on May 20, 2022. Its entire inventory of nuclear fuel was unloaded from the reactor core on June 10, 2022 by Entergy. Permission to operate the reactor has been formally terminated by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Palisades was denied nuclear credits by DOE in November, 2022. Beyond Nuclear, Don’t Waste Michigan, and other signatories question why HDI  is being considered for nuclear credits a second time. Pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act, they have requested the DOE file on the first application; at this writing, it is yet to be provided.

The bailout and restart scheme ignores Palisades’ severe, high-risk, age-related degradation, according to the signatories, including multiple worsening pathways to catastrophic reactor core meltdown:

  • the worst pressure vessel embrittlement in the country, and among the worst in the world
  • severely degraded steam generators and reactor lid, decades overdue for replacement
  • a half-century worth of problem-plagued control rod drive mechanism seal failures

“We’ve long known Palisades was a radioactive monster, but we never imagined in our wildest nightmare it turning into a zombie reactor,” said Kevin Kamps, radioactive waste specialist at Beyond Nuclear based in Takoma Park, MD. If restarted for at least another 9 years of ever more high-risk operations, Kemp says Palisades would “massively pick their federal taxpayer, and likely also Michigander state ratepayer, pockets to do so.”

The letter offered several arguments that Palisades cannot meet civil nuclear credit program operations expectations.

  1. The Applicant cannot demonstrate “that, at the time of the submission of the Certification Application, the Nuclear Reactor is projected to cease operations due to economic factors….”
  2. The Applicant cannot demonstrate “that Air Pollutants would increase if the Nuclear Reactor were to cease operations and be replaced with other types of power generation . . . .”
  3. The NRC cannot provide the Secretary with “reasonable assurance that the Nuclear Reactor will continue to be operated in accordance with its current licensing basis (as defined in 10 C.F.R. § 54.3).
  4. The NRC cannot provide the Secretary with “reasonable assurance that the Nuclear Reactor poses no significant safety hazards; . . . .”

According to its website, HDI’s approach to decommissioning was to begin and complete the physical work of decontamination and dismantlement decades sooner than if the current nuclear plant owner had retained ownership of the plant.

“Market manipulation is detrimental to the entire energy sector,” said Michael Keegan, co-chair of Don’t Waste Michigan. “Yet, the Entergy-Consumers Energy Power Purchase Agreement, from 2007 to 2022, gouged the region’s ratepayers, forcing them to pay 57% above market rates on their electricity bills.”

“Our analysis indicates that Palisades does not even qualify for such a bailout under the US Department of Energy’s own rules, nor the letter of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law,” said Diane D’Arrigo, Radioactive Waste Project director at Nuclear Information and Resource Service based in Takoma Park, MD. “For starters, the Civil Nuclear Credit Program is intended to bail out still-operating reactors, but Palisades closed for good more than 8 months ago.”

In addition to Indigenous Environmental Network, other Indigenous, or Indigenous-led, organizations which also endorsed the coalition letter to DOE include:

  • Citizens’ Resistance At Fermi Two (CRAFT) based in Redford, MI
  • Native Community Action Council based in Las Vegas, NV
  • Native Justice Coalition based in Manistee, MI

“The Indigenous Environmental Network and our coalition allies commented to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission nearly two decades ago, regarding Palisades’ operations after its initial 40-year license expired in 2007, stating our concern that Indigenous Peoples and Tribal Governments should have been meaningfully consulted, on a government-to-government basis, but this was not done,” said Tom BK Goldtooth, Executive Director of IEN. “Restored operations at this atomic reactor would further impact and put at risk ecological and human health, impact to culturally significant sites in the vicinity, including potential burial sites. The rights of Indigenous Peoples and treaties must be honored, and federal laws, such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to name but one, must be enforced.”

Environmental Justice (EJ) and youth-led organizations endorsing the letter include:

  • Benton Harbor (MI) Community Water Council
  • Black Autonomy Network Community Organization, Benton Harbor
  • Breathe Free Detroit
  • Earth Care, New Mexico, based in Oghá P’o’oge, unceded Tewa Territory (Santa Fe)
  • Energia Mia, in San Antonio, TX
  • Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice in San Francisco, CA
  • Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition based in Detroit; Michigan Student Power Alliance based in Detroit
  • Original United Citizens of Southwest Detroit

A major environmental concern related to nuclear power is the creation of radioactive wastes such as uranium mill tailings, spent (used) reactor fuel, and other radioactive wastes, according to the EIA. These materials can remain radioactive and dangerous to human health for thousands of years.

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Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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