Published in Energy

New economic drivers envisioned to replace Palisades nuclear plant loss

BY Sunday, July 17, 2022 06:39pm

COVERT TWP. — Southwest Michigan economic development officials are hoping to lure new employers to the region to help offset the job losses from the retirement of the Palisades nuclear power plant along Lake Michigan.

As new plant owner Holtec International begins to convert nuclear waste stored onsite to a form of dry cask storage ahead of potentially shipping it to the Southwest United States, local officials hope to capitalize on the area’s life sciences and food processing clusters to attract new workers.

Left: Zachary Morris, Right: Patrick O’Brien

Under the former ownership of Entergy Corp., Palisades had employed 594 people. Holtec hired about 250 of those workers, while the rest retired, moved to other Entergy facilities or were laid off.

Zachary Morris, executive director of economic development agency Market Van Buren, characterized the initial landing of a nuclear power plant several decades ago as a “grand slam in the bottom of the ninth in the World Series.” 

The community has dedicated roughly $1 million to luring new industries in Palisades’ wake, and the Palisades Community Advisory Panel serves as a “clearinghouse” for the public to stay informed on the decommissioning process.

“To get another (large employer of Palisades’ scale) back in the community again would be rare,” Morris said. “Instead of hitting a grand slam, we need to hit several doubles and get people on base. We know we need to develop some industrial sites along I-94 and I-96 and develop our rail system. There are several sites to locate several types of businesses, including food processors. And we also have a strong life sciences cluster in eastern Van Buren County and Kalamazoo County.”

Despite efforts to potentially save Palisades under a $6 billion federal program to rescue aging nuclear plants set for closure, and Holtec’s willingness to entertain a potential buyer, no such proposals have come forward.

“We’ve said consistently even before the transfer (from Entergy last month) that we’re willing to listen if there was a buyer that was interested in coming in to acquire Palisades,” said Patrick O’Brien, Holtec’s government affairs and communications senior manager. “We would entertain that. The line in the sand is when you start ripping apart the reactor and start the decommissioning.”

Absent such a proposal, the company — which is in the process of dismantling multiple former nuclear plants across the U.S. — has begun a 19-year plan to decommission and eventually tear apart Palisades, which occupies about 400 acres along the lakeshore.

The company will take the next three years to convert spent fuel onsite from wet to dry cask storage. Holtec is in the process of seeking federal approval to then move the waste to a remote site in New Mexico. Consolidating the waste in a few remote locations in the Southwest is meant to limit risks associated with storing spent nuclear fuel at dozens of sites across the country.

O’Brien said converting the spent fuel to dry storage “removes some risks” and shrinks the footprint of the physical waste onsite.

“Then we’ll do a more large-scale demolition and deconstruction of the site,” O’Brien said.

As of March 31, a decommissioning trust fund established years ago and paid for by Consumers Energy customers had a $539 million balance to support the cleanup effort.

“You have that area and could potentially redevelop it once it’s deconstructed and turn that land back into another economic engine for the community, or work with the community on what they foresee as a potential future use of those sites,” O’Brien said.

One of those future uses includes additional power generation. Holtec is considering the site for the future use of small, modular nuclear reactors, a technology gaining steam in the energy space but still several years away from being more widely deployed. The company first plans to test the technology, which could be assembled at factories offsite, at a former nuclear plant site it owns in New Jersey.

“If any of the local communities (where Holtec owns former plants) wanted to go down that path, we’d definitely entertain that, much like a couple of our areas don’t want that,” O’Brien said. “Still, even with licensing, we’re talking the beginning of the early 2030s as a timeline for deployment.”

O’Brien added that the “biggest obstacle” at this point to modular reactors is the “perception of the nuclear industry. There is still a lot of animosity around nuclear power in general.”

While the physical removal of the Palisades plant is still more than a decade away, Morris said it’s prudent for local officials to begin reimagining the site now.

“You have a switchyard there and a transmission system for (regional electric grid operator) MISO,” Morris said. “I think you could potentially have another generating station there because of that, but who’s going to make that investment and what is the fuel source? I don’t know. Maybe it will be some type of other industry or residential. These are all possibilities.” 

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