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Avoiding meltdown: Michigan’s nuclear future

By Stacy Gittleman



Photo: DTE Energy

Driving along the I-75 corridor between Detroit and Toledo, one can catch glimpses of the twin curved silos of the Enrico Fermi Nuclear Generating Station, known as Fermi 2, that sits on the shores of Lake Erie. Owned by DTE Energy and in operation since 1988, Fermi 2 has produced more than 200 billion kilowatt-hours (KW) of electricity per year – enough electricity to light up a city of one million people at any given time.


The sight of Fermi 2 to some is so striking as they drive along I-75 that people even leave it reviews on Google Maps. Some see the silos as a reliable and carbon emission-free source of power and a much cleaner source than coal. Indeed, Fermi 2 has met state environmental stewardship requirements for preserving wetlands and wildlife since 2001.


But to others, the vision of those silos conjures up fearful lessons of history’s three largest nuclear catastrophes and the conundrum of what to do with nuclear waste.


Michigan's four functioning nuclear reactors – Fermi 2, D.C. Cook Units 1 and 2, and Palisades, supply Michigan with nearly 30 percent of its total electric power supply.


A controversy over a license transfer may delay plans Michigan has to close the Palisades Nuclear Power Plant in 2022, but the other nuclear power plants in the state are not set to be retired for decades to come.


Overall, according to state environmental and nuclear industry officials, because of the amount of Michigan's carbon emissions-free electricity that comes from nuclear power, one way or another, it will have a seat at the table as a viable fuel source into the future.


The United States in 1979 saw its worst nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, when a partial meltdown released a small radioactive release into the atmosphere. Though it had no detectable health effects on plant workers or the public, its aftermath brought about sweeping safety and emergency response changes from federal levels of government and reduced public desire to build more reactors.


Decades after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear core meltdown and explosion in the Ukraine, there still exists a 1,000 square-mile radioactive exclusion zone around the site of the reactor meltdown and fire. This zone will remain uninhabitable by humans indefinitely. Recently, Ukrainian scientists were disturbed to discover detected elevated levels of activity from leftover nuclear fission fuel in an inaccessible area deep inside the sealed plant, according to Science magazine.


A decade after a 2011 9.0 earthquake and ensuing 40-foot tsunami destroyed three of the four reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, that country is still grappling with the long-term effects of displaced evacuated populations that never have returned, and the unpopular proposal to dump millions of gallons of treated, yet still radioactive wastewater, into the Pacific Ocean from cleanup efforts.


Though a large-scale nuclear disaster in Michigan is unlikely, in the event of a core meltdown or the escape of a radioactive cloud, millions of people living in a 50-mile radius of Fermi 2 or any of the state’s other nuclear power plants would need to be evacuated for an indefinite amount of time.


Michigan has seen its share of environmental violations and accidents from nuclear energy. In 1963, Fermi 1 had a partial core meltdown and was later permanently shut down in 1972. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Fermi 2 was the site of the country’s longest nuclear refueling and maintenance outage in 2020, which lasted from March through August.


Although DTE Energy in 2015 won licensing and design approval for a newer smaller Fermi 3 reactor in Newport City in Monroe County, it was never built.


State experts who work in the field say there have been enough accidents and ongoing structural problems with Michigan's nuclear power plants to sour any plans for the construction of nuclear power plants in the future.


Ever since Three Mile Island in 1979, every state that operates a nuclear power plant must incorporate a nuclear emergency plan in accordance with procedures relayed by the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, according to T.R. Wentworth, manager of the Radiological Protection Section of the Materials Management Division at Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE).


Wentworth said a desire for nuclear energy has ebbed and flowed depending on how long major nuclear disasters have lingered in the news.


“Beginning in the late 1990s, Michigan and the rest of the country went through a sort of nuclear renaissance,” said Wentworth. “With the end of coal-fired power plants in clear sight, there was a push from several presidential administrations to fund research and development of nuclear energy alongside renewable sources to reduce carbon emissions by 32 percent of 2005 levels by 2030.”


Then came the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan.


“Nuclear reactors produce a lot of energy with very little raw material for zero carbon emissions,” said Wentworth. “Michigan was in the midst of ramping up a new generation of nuclear reactor designs, but the disaster at Fukushima, and the fact that Japan is still dealing with the cleanup 10 years on, put the brakes on any plans for new nuclear reactors. Additionally, the low cost of fracking for natural gas is out-competing any desire from public opinion to build or locate any new sites for nuclear power plants."


Wentworth said in the case of a nuclear accident, EGLE would coordinate field teams with federal authorities to monitor any radioactive plumes and make recommendations for shelter-in-place orders, and evacuations within a 10 or 50-mile radius, depending on the severity of the accident. The state also regularly monitors agriculture, livestock and water samples for levels of radioactivity.


“Each year, we run practice drills on a rotating basis on the premises of the state’s reactors, and these drills are also coordinated with local emergency response teams from fire and police departments,” he said.


Wentworth makes a distinction between radioactive waste – which is contaminated construction materials and other junk – and spent nuclear fuel – rods containing pellets of uranium that can be reprocessed and reused at a later point. Though no new reactors are coming online in Michigan, Wentworth pointed to other parts of the country, such as Georgia, which are building smaller, more efficient reactors, as well as China, which is leading the way in building new reactors for its electricity demand.


Yet, Wentworth said what to do with that spent fuel until the time comes before it has a permanent repository or there is an industrial innovation to reprocess and recycle it, is the nation’s long-term 800-pound radioactive gorilla.


“What the nation will do with the spent fuel is the monster that we as a country have yet to have a solution,” said Wentworth. “In my opinion, until we have a concrete national strategy for where and how to store the spent fuel, there is not going to be much traction in advancing nuclear power.”


On the front end, when managed safely, nuclear power has been touted as one of the cleanest, emissions-free and abundant sources of power that can be derived from the smallest amounts of material fuel.


Nuclear energy in the United States gained prominence in the 1950s and 1960s as a reliable power source to meet a growing demand in post-war America. By the 1970s, it was seen as a way for the country to liberate itself from the oil-rich yet turbulent Middle East and its OPEC oil embargoes.


Created as an offshoot of the Atomic Energy Commission, Congress in 1974 created the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) as an independent oversight entity for the nation’s growing fleet of nuclear power plants. A NRC spokesperson said 3,000 scientists, engineers and technicians concentrate on thorough oversight, tight regulations, and regular evidence-based updates to emergency response and safety procedures as it considers existing and new licenses of nuclear power plants. Above all, the NRC stated that transparency and communication with the public are at the core of all NRC activities.


By the 1990s, prompted by the threat of climate change and the quest to create emissions-free energy to keep up with the global demand for electricity, over 100 commercial power reactors had been commissioned nationwide.


In more recent decades, the industry has experienced stops and starts because of fear of catastrophic nuclear accidents, as well as the cost of building a new reactor currently runs into the billions of dollars as the costs of wind and solar materials have dropped 75 and 25 percent, respectively, since 2011.


Even so, recent testimony to Congress in March 2021 by Environmental Progress Founder and President Michael D. Shellenberger concluded that the nation’s fragile power grid cannot afford the closure of nuclear plants because of their reliability to produce at-capacity, emissions-free electricity.


But most of the country’s nuclear power plants are about to exceed their 40-year life cycle expectancies. According to the Energy Information Administration, almost all the U.S. nuclear generating capacity comes from reactors built between 1967 and 1990. As of May 1, 2021, there were 55 commercially operating nuclear power plants with 93 nuclear power reactors in 28 U.S. states.


The newest nuclear reactor to enter service, Watts Bar Unit 2 in Tennessee, began commercial operation in October 2016. As of May 2020, there are just two nuclear power plants under construction in the United States, both in Georgia. Worldwide, China and India are the leaders in new nuclear plant construction.


In Michigan, the Whitmer Administration is gravely concerned about how to best manage the state’s three remaining operating plants and the spent nuclear energy they produce, all located along the shorelines of the Great Lakes.

Entergy Corporation, headquartered in New Orleans, is looking to shut down the beleaguered Palisades Nuclear Plant in South Haven by May 2022. It is working to transfer its operating license of that site, as well as the defunct Big Point nuclear storage facility in Charlevoix, to New Jersey-based Holtec International by December 2021.


Built between 1967 and 1970, Palisades was approved to operate at full power in 1973, and at any given time produces 800 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 800,000 homes in southwest Michigan. According to the Sierra Club, it is the globe’s oldest operating nuclear power plant – and the least structurally sound. Since 2007, it has been the site of numerous workplace accidents, and has leaked radioactive water into Lake Michigan. Though the NRC has affirmed that none of the accidents have been a threat to public health to the 1,326,618 people who live within a 50-mile radius of the site, according to 2010 Census records, concerns remain. With talk of permanent closure proposed and postponed seven times since 1995, Palisades was loaded with its last fuel rods in September 2020, and is currently set to shut down in May of 2022.


Although Entergy has put aside $550 million in a ratepayer trust to finance the shutdown and cleanup, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, backed by environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, are wary of Holtec’s record and in February 2021 petitioned the NRC to have a thorough hearing and halt the transfer of Entergy’s businesses in Michigan unless there is assurance that Holtec will practice due diligence in the project and not leave Michigan to foot any cleanup expenses that exceed the amount in the trust fund.


Holtec is a company that has the nation’s most contracts in cleaning up and decommissioning the nation’s aging nuclear power plants. According to reports, in the early 2000's, Holtec was embroiled in a bribery scandal. An undisclosed Holtec employee funneled as much as $54,000 to the personal account of a Tennessee Valley Authority manager, along with travel and luxury junkets to the manager and his wife. In 2007, the TVA manager, John L. Symonds, pleaded guilty to federal charges related to his failure to disclose the money in his financial disclosure forms that were given to him by Holtec.


“The AG has not taken a position on whether Entergy or Holtec is the better company to handle the decommissioning,” said Michigan Attorney General Press Secretary Lynsey Mukomel. “Instead, Nessel examined Holtec’s application to transfer the license, found concerns with it, and then filed a petition seeking a hearing and further development of the record with regards to these concerns.”


Mukomel said Nessel is concerned that Holtec does not possess the financial qualifications or assurances necessary to complete such a risk-intensive project.


“The petition demonstrates that Holtec has significantly underestimated the costs for actual decommissioning, thus threatening the health and safety of Michigan residents,” said Mukomel. “The petition also questions Holtec’s exemption request to use the decommissioning funds for site restoration and spent fuel management without providing evidence of other funding sources.”


Palisades Senior Government Affairs Manager Nick Culp said Entergy’s focus remains the safe, secure and reliable operation of Palisades until its permanent shutdown by May 31, 2022. The company said it will also continue to move forward with its plans for a post-shutdown sale of Palisades to Holtec for purposes of accelerated decommissioning.


“Holtec’s filings to the NRC detail its plans to complete the decommissioning of Palisades by 2041,” said Culp. “That 19-year timeline is more than four decades sooner than if Entergy continued to own Palisades and selected the maximum NRC timeline option, which allows 60 years for decommissioning. The safe and timely decommissioning of the site is particularly important for the local community, which could benefit from the site being repurposed decades sooner.”

Sierra Club Michigan backs Nessel’s decision to request an NRC hearing to further investigate Holtec’s capabilities. To bolster this doubt, they point to the company’s less than scrupulous track record of alleged bribes and kickbacks to employees of other nuclear plant officials.


“Holtec has a checkered and less than scrupulous past in its work,” said Mark Muhich, chairman of Sierra Club's Nuclear Free Michigan, referring to the 2011 Tennessee Valley scandal scandal as well as alleged shady business dealings in decommissioning activities in power plants in New Jersey, Ohio and New York.


“We want the NRC to be very diligent in its examination of this license transfer,” said Muhich. “Michigan deserves a thorough hearing before the NRC to express its concerns, and alternative companies to do the decommissioning work should be considered.”


Muchich added that the Sierra Club is also concerned that the money raised by Entergy for decommissioning the two sites will run out before the job is done, leaving Michigan to foot the bill.


“The NRC states that the decommissioning cost (for Palisades and Big Rock Point) will run about $400 million, but costs to decommission plants in Massachusetts and Vermont are running as high as one billion dollars,” said Muhich. “Our main concern is that funding set aside by Entergy will run out and Holtec is not prepared to purchase a bond to be financially responsible to raise money to complete the work.”


While she could not comment on the controversy of the potential license transfer between Entergy and Holtec, Viktoria Mitlyng, senior public affairs officer of the midwest region of the NRC, said the NRC has never seen a case where monies put into an accruing decommissioning bond were completely drained before a job was complete. She said the NRC will conduct a thorough review to assure that whichever company is left in charge to decommission the Palisades plant will have the financial resources for a complete and thorough cleanup, meaning, at the end of the process, there should be no levels of hazardous radiation detected.


Mitlyng said whoever winds up in charge of Palisades and Big Rock Point must submit annual reports to the NRC to make sure the project is on track and on budget. The NRC also inspects decommissioned nuclear power plants every two years.


The NRC runs routine rotating emergency drills at all of the nation’s nuclear power plants, and just ran a radioactive plume drill on Fermi 1 on May 18. If there were the unlikely case of a core meltdown or a highly radioactive plume escape at Fermi 2 today, a coordinated effort from federal, state and local emergency agencies would proceed with any emergency, shelter in place or evacuation efforts.


The NRC contemplates shadow evacuations from within the 10-mile emergency planning zone as well as a shadow region that is defined as the area between the 10-mile emergency planning zone border to a radius of approximately 15 miles from the Fermi Plant.


DTE Energy estimates that 101,913 people live within a 10-mile radius and 20 percent of those people would have to evacuate in a radiological emergency.

After the 2011 Fukushima disaster, the NRC took into consideration that people living within a 50-mile radius of any nuclear power plant would have to be evacuated. An expansion of the shadow region to a 50-mile radius would significantly increase the population implicated in an evacuation to well over five million people living in places like the Detroit and Toledo metro areas, as well as Ann Arbor, according to 2010 population records.


At the southwest corner of the state on the shore of Lake Michigan sits the state’s largest nuclear power plant. The Donald C. Cook Nuclear Plant, located in Bridgman, Michigan, consists of two reactors that each have a capacity rating of roughly 1,100 megawatts. When run at full power, Cook provides enough electricity for more than 1.5 million homes. Most of this power is used in Indiana.


Since becoming operational in the late 1970s, the Donald C. Cook Nuclear Generating Station in Bridgman has been plagued with about a half-dozen incidents, including onsite employee deaths and injuries and a three-year closure beginning in 1997, when the NRC determined that emergency cooling systems could not be depended upon to perform in the event of an accident to prevent a core meltdown. The NRC fined the nuclear power plant with a $500,000 civil penalty for 37 regulatory violations.


In 2003, a fault in the main transformer caused a fire that damaged the main generator and backup turbines. In 2016, there was a heavy steam leak into the station's turbine building. Most recently, Cook went offline briefly in October 2020, as a result of a power trip due to lowering water level in one of the plant’s four steam generators. Its next plume emergency drill with the NRC is set for September 2021.


American Electric Power (AEP) has renewed the license of Cook 1 and 2, with each expiring respectively in 2034 and 2037.


Joel Gebbie, AEP senior vice president and chief nuclear officer, said Cook works to be as transparent as possible with the public concerning incidents such as its recent outage. Though it posed no threat to the public, it must report all such incidents as directed by the NRC.


He explained, as set by FEMA and the NRC, all nuclear power plants ascribe to the same four levels of response in case of emergency. Each alert level comes with a set of procedures and processes to communicate to the public and emergency authorities.


A general emergency is the highest level of alert, where events are in progress that has caused or will cause substantial core damage with potential for uncontrolled releases of radiation that exceed EPA safety levels to the general public. According to Gebbie, the nation’s only general emergency alert level was the 1979 Three Mile Island accident.


As a partially deregulated energy market, Gebbie acknowledged that Michigan's nuclear industry has been challenged by lower-cost sources of energy such as natural gas as well as the emerging renewable sources of wind and solar. He speculates that this is part of the reason Entergy wants to decommission Palisades and switch its existing customers to natural gas. Still, he said that nuclear energy will remain a viable source of power into the future, as evidenced by the Department of Energy’s continued investment in research and development of the industry and with newer, more efficient third and fourth generation designs being reviewed by the NRC.


"Nuclear power plants still supply the nation with 50 percent of its emission-free power that is available 24/7, and operates in the harshest weather conditions, said Gebbie. "Large generating facilities like Cook help stabilize the electric grid. While building a new plant like Cook in the U.S. is highly unlikely because of the expense, there are smaller, more advanced second or even third-generation plants being built right now in Georgia."


A different problem facing the industry is what to do with used nuclear fuel, also known as spent nuclear fuel. America’s inventory of spent nuclear fuel is growing with no cohesive federal plan on where to permanently and safely store it for hundreds – or even one thousand years – before it finally becomes inert.


According to the Energy Information Agency, between 1968 and 2017, more than 276,000 bundles of spent fuel rods (fuel rod assemblies), which contained a little less than 80,000 metric tons of uranium, were stored in the United States. The inventory of spent fuel assemblies has grown by about 13.2 percent from mid-2013 to the end of 2017.


The discharged spent nuclear fuel rods are stored in one of two ways. The first approach stores spent fuel rods in pools of water that cool them and provide additional shielding from radiation. The pools of water resemble swimming pools, and rods may stay in these pools for five years. These pre-cooled spent fuel rods are then placed in a dry cask container filled with inert gas. Each container is surrounded by steel, concrete, or other material to provide a stronger shield from radiation. In the United States, nearly all spent nuclear fuel is currently stored onsite at commercial nuclear power plants.


Presently, in Michigan, 2,222.7 tons of spent nuclear fuel sit in cooling pools and 1,073.7 tons are sealed in cement and steel casks. There, they remain, on-site, close to the shores of the Great Lakes, for the foreseeable future.


“We have found in our studies that nuclear power – the possibility of a reactor accident or leak of radioactive material into our waterways, and how spent nuclear fuel is stored – is something that people fear the most above everything else,” said Mitlyng of the NRC. "The safety of the Great Lakes as it relates to spent nuclear fuel is a question we get all the time – and rightly so – because there is no 'zero risk' in anything.”


Mitlyng explained before a dry cask installation is put in place, the question of geology and proximity to any body of water is considered. The installation is inspected and constantly monitored to minimize the risk of any nuclear material leaks.


“We have multiple layers of regulations and protective procedures in place,” said Mitlyng. “The risk is never zero, but these casks in their design are always being tested, including being dropped hundreds of feet, to make sure the risk of them rupturing is kept at a minimum.”

Problematic to the nuclear energy industry is this growing inventory and the ever more densely packed cooling pools, some packed as tightly as the reactors from which they were removed. A fire from a densely packed pool could send plumes of radioactive clouds hundreds of miles. According to academic researchers, a radioactive cloud from a spent fuel pool fire would span hundreds of miles, spurring evacuation of millions of residents in Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Toronto or other population centers, depending on where the accident occurred and wind patterns.


Frank von Hippel is a senior research physicist and professor of public and international affairs emeritus and founder of the Program on Science & Global Security at Princeton University. In 2016, he and his colleagues published a paper that studied the risk of spent fuel pools catching fire at nuclear power plants through the lens of Japan's Fukushima disaster. Von Hippel concluded that had the pools caught fire due to a loss of water and a buildup of explosive hydrogen, the disaster would have worsened 100-fold, serving as a cautionary tale for the way this country is straining the capacity of its spent fuel cooling pools.


“It was just a stroke of luck that there was not a spent fuel pool fire in Fukushima," said von Hippel. "Had that have happened, the radiation released into the atmosphere would have been 100 times more serious, and we calculated that the evacuation area would have had to be twice the size of New Jersey. It could have been a $2 trillion accident to clean up."


Von Hippel said after the Fukushima accident, the NRC considered a proposal he and his colleagues made back in 2003 to assure that nuclear power plants in the United States hold no more than five years of spent nuclear fuel in cooling pools to avoid the risk of an accident or fire.


“But the NRC staff estimated that would cost $50 million per reactor and, in partially deregulated states (such as Michigan), nuclear power plants are struggling to compete against wind, photovoltaics and natural gas. That is probably why Palisades is shutting down," Von Hippel said.

The Department of Energy paints a rather rosy picture that the rods of spent fuel can one day be reprocessed and recycled to provide more power. Though 90 percent of potential energy remains in the fuel even five years after it is removed from a reactor, only France has developed a method to safely recycle spent nuclear fuel.


Those in the industry say in addition to the appeal and decreasing cost to produce electricity with natural gas, wind and solar, until the federal government finalizes plans for a national and permanent repository of spent nuclear fuel, there remains little appetite in the general public to progress and promote nuclear energy.


As of April 2021, the nation has permanently shuttered 39 nuclear reactors, more than any other industrialized country, according to data research corporation Statista. The Energy Information Agency predicts that nuclear power generation will have declined 17 percent between 2018 and 2025.


Just as it manages nuclear power plants when they are active, the NRC will oversee their closure and dismantling and transport of spent nuclear fuel when the time comes, said Mitlyng.


The federal government has yet to hammer out a permanent plan to create a final repository for its growing inventory of spent nuclear fuel. It will all most likely reside in a geologically stable, subterranean cavern.


A 1987 proposal to build a permanent nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada has been in a permanent political deadlock. Another proposal to designate repository sites in New Mexico and Texas has been derailed by New Mexico’s attorney general filing a lawsuit against the NRC in March 2021. On the Canadian side of the Great Lakes, Ontario Power Generation has given up its long-pursued proposal to petition a request to store Canadian spent nuclear fuel in a geologically sound underground repository that was just one-quarter mile from Lake Huron.


“It is not the NRC’s role to create policy on how or when the nation will commit to creating a long-term repository plan,” said Mitlyng, who was born in Kyiv and lived there through the Chernobyl nuclear accident before emigrating to the United States with her family. After the fall of the Soviet Union, she returned to Russia as a young journalist for the English-language Moscow Times and met and wrote about the surviving firefighters who were first responders at the Chernobyl accident who were unaware of the high levels of radiation which they were exposed as they worked.


“Once the United States finalizes its repository plan, the NRC will be there to create every step of the process – from how the materials and casks are handled and transported by workers, to developing highly controlled security routes to make sure the materials will safely reach their final resting place.“


Mitlyng said the NRC is “neither pro-nor anti-nuclear energy and makes no decisions based on politics or current sitting presidential administrations.


“The NRC has a strong mission to safety. So long as there are civilian applications of nuclear power, the NRC’s job is to make sure the technology is used safely and that rules and regulations are updated as soon as technological advances become available.”

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