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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.