Nuclear Power Industry Meltdown

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Rebecca Thiele/Great Lakes Today

Palisades Nuclear Plant sits on the shore of Lake Michigan near Covert, Mich.


Great Lakes beaches have always been popular for tourists. But in the 1970s and 80s, they were also prime real estate for nuclear power plants because there was lots of water to cool the reactors. Now there are nine nuclear plants on the lakes – but cheaper energy sources are forcing some to shut down.

Nuclear power produces one fifth of the electricity in this country. It’s a carbon emissions free source of energy, but the industry is in trouble – aging reactors, high overhead costs and cheap natural gas are threatening to shutdown more and more reactors. And that’s not even considering the ongoing problems of what to do with nuclear waste.

Palisades Nuclear Power Plant is one of the nuclear plants currently threatened with shut down. It’s located in Covert, Mich., on the southern shore of Lake Michigan. Rosemary Thurber lives about five miles from there, and when she found out Palisades plans to close next year, she was relieved. The 45-year-old plant is one of the oldest in the country and has had several emergency shut downs.

“If we had an accident – a really bad accident – we would lose our tourist industry, we would lose our orchards, our agriculture, our wineries. Just everything that I like about this part of the world,” Thurber said.

But the closure worries many people in the area, including Mike Neiss. He worked for Palisades for about five years in the 80s.

“It’s just a very sad thing and I think it’s not only going to affect us economically but socially the town will change as well,” he said. “Since it’s going to be pretty much summer home owners and summer rentals. And we’re going to miss that neighborhood and that community feel.”

Shutdowns have been triggered by changes in the energy industry. Gene Grecheck of the American Nuclear Society, a group made up of workers in the nuclear industry, says natural gas prices are at rock bottom right now. And unlike energy sources like wind and solar, the nuclear industry doesn’t get as many federal subsidies.

“They’ve just reduced the price of electricity to the point that the operators of nuclear power plants find it very difficult to compete,” Grecheck said.

 An eighth grade math classes at Covert Public Schools. The district has many low-income, minority students and has outperformed many districts in the state like it.

Rebecca Thiele / Great Lakes Today

An eighth grade math classes at Covert Public Schools. The district has many low-income, minority students and has outperformed many districts in the state like it.

When a nuclear plant shuts down, it can leave a big hole in a community. About half of the funding for Covert Public Schools comes from taxes on Palisades Nuclear Plant. Superintendent Bobbi Morehead says those dollars make a difference. Most school districts set aside five percent of the money left over at end of a budget year as a kind of rainy day fund. Right now Covert Schools sets aside 65 percent.

“We’re always preparing that things could change quickly,” Morehead said.

Van Buren County Administrator Doug Cultra says Palisades employs more than 130 people in the county. What’s more, he says, many are well-paid, skilled professionals – and community leaders.

“The contributions they make to the community is soccer coaches, is baseball coaches, is people on the school board. Yes, those are the type of people that we could lose and that’s going to be a difficult void to fill,” Cultra said.

But there will be lingering reminders of Palisades after it closes. The corporate owner will have to tear down the buildings and clean up the site. That can take up to 60 years.

“The job is cleaning up radioactive contamination of the environment that has built up for years and decades. This is very dangerous and hazardous contamination,” says Kevin Kamps of Beyond Nuclear,  a group that wants to see these plants shut down.

Once the cleanup is done, all that will be left are large, steel cylinders filled with radioactive waste. They’ll stay there until the government builds a permanent storage facility for spent nuclear fuel. That’s a troubling legacy for area residents like Neiss.

Palisades stores nuclear waste in these dry casks on the plant site, close to Lake Michigan.

Entergy Nuclear -Palisades)

Palisades stores nuclear waste in these dry casks on the plant site, close to Lake Michigan.

“I’m sure it’s as safe as they can possibly make it,” Neiss said. “But to know that it’s sitting there on the beach is not a comforting thing.”

The local utility still has to end its agreement with the company that owns Palisades. If that isn’t approved by the Michigan Public Service Commission, the company says it will “re-evaluate its plans.”

This story comes to us from Great Lakes Today, a public media collaboration public media highlighting issues affecting the Great Lakes.

  • sn0wman

    On a per terawatt of electricity generated basis the mortality rate from nuclear power generation since inception is one fourth of wind and one tenth of solar. Don’t be so quick to throw nuclear away until you know the facts. Those “legacy” casks of spent fuel will not be around very long, they will be sold for a lot of money and used to fuel the next generation of reactors. 60 years until decommissioning is only to let radioactive parts decay so decommissioning becomes much simpler and cheaper. By far and away most of the power plant components are not radioactive. The irony is that virtually every component of a nuclear plant can be replaced so why not just keep this immense, safe, baseload, non-carbon producing power source running?

    • Zac Eagle

      For over 60 years, nuclear power have produced three products which only a lunatic could want: bomb-explosive plutonium, 100s of thousands of tonnes of high level waste lethal for million years and electricity so dear it has to be heavily subsidised. They leave to future generation the task, and most of the cost, of looking after these sights to eternity. Luckily this filth creating industry is becoming uneconomical with renewables becoming much cheaper and nukiller is being decommissioned in many parts of the world.
      Nuclear is a dead horse still being flogged by some.

      • TimS

        Intermittent renewables are failing miserably in curbing CO2 emissions, e.g. Germany, California, Vermont, etc. They are just high-cost mystical placebos backed up by fossil fuels to keep lights on when wind is not blowing or sun is not shining or during prolonged droughts because cost-effective batteries/energy storage does not exist and is ever far from becoming reality.

      • Jag_Levak

        The plutonium in spent fuel is reactor-grade, which is only suitable for use in reactors. Reactor grade plutonium has proportions of contaminant isotopes that are too high to be suitable for use in bombs, and we have no practical means to separate the Pu-239 bombs use from the unwanted Pu-238 and Pu-240. Bomb plutonium comes from specialized production reactors, not power reactors.

        And spent fuel is at its most intensely radioactive right after it comes out of the reactor. That intensity falls off rapidly at first, and then slower over time. So the most dangerous period for handling and storing spent fuel is in the early years. And yet, in all the decades we’ve been handling these large amounts of spent fuel, the total number of radiation deaths or injuries from that has been… zero. Calling it lethal when it hasn’t yet killed a single person, and will only get less radioactive from here on out, seems more than a bit hyperbolic. Bathtubs, window treatments, pet dogs, stairways, and children’s toys could also be described as lethal, and with a lot more justification, since they actually have a death toll.

        • ajbarba

          Thanks Jag for your comment. Please keep reading and commenting! Alisa B. Executive Editor, Inside Energy

    • ajbarba

      Thanks for your comment. I’d be interested to see the research/data that calculates relatives mortality rates of various power generation sources. Alisa B. Executive Editor, Inside Energy

      • sn0wman

        It is in The Next Big Future March 1, 2011. Or Google energy generation mortality comparison. All renewables and nuclear are much safer than any of the fossil fuel technologies given the air pollution and greenhouse gas generated. Nuclear is the safest by virtue of the fact that it is such a dense source of energy in a small footprint with no pollution and so highly regulated.

  • TimS

    “One point is clear: greenhouse gases will increase if nuclear plants close.”
    https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-04-24/lifeline-for-nuclear-in-u-s-states-seen-threatening-wind-solar
    And another point is that intermittent renewables are an expensive fiasco in terms of CO2 reduction, e.g. Germany and California.
    “California Nuclear Closures Resulted in 250% Higher Emissions from Electricity”
    http://www.environmentalprogress.org/big-news/2017/1/16/new-california-nuclear-closures-resulted-in-250-increase-in-california-emissions
    “Ivanpah solar plant, built to limit greenhouse gases, is burning more natural gas”
    http://www.pe.com/articles/plant-823670-gas-ivanpah.html
    https://pbs.twimg.com/media/CwGvrFmUAAAMudg.jpg
    https://actinideage.files.wordpress.com/2017/04/kwh-person-year-info.png

    • ajbarba

      Thanks for your comment Tim and for sharing that Bloomberg piece. Its clear that this is a subject of much debate right now. Alisa B., Inside Energy Executive editor

  • ajbarba

    For more info on the decommissioning process and why it can take so long, you can check out a similar story by the same reporter here.

    http://wmuk.org/post/how-much-money-palisades-has-cleanup-and-why-it-matters

  • sn0wman

    An interesting point for all to consider. Wind turbines all use rare earth metal in their generators due to weight reduction needs, multiply that by thousands and thousands. Nuclear power generators do not. Also, the amount of materials (i.e. Concrete and steel) needed for equivalent power generation is at least 10 times more for wind and solar compared to nuclear. And that doesn’t take into account the gas and coal backup, nor does it take into account the massive new grid that will need to be constructed. We are talking many many trillions of dollars and more concrete than we can make, to run the country on wind and solar. Which would you rather have, 70 square miles of wind turbines or one 1000 megawatt plant on 1 square mile of land? New reactors will be modular and underground and will easily use the present grid. How about all the birds and bats the wind turbines will kill?? I guess we all will need to get used to a lot more mosquitoes and the diseases they carry.

    • ajbarba

      Really interesting points! Ones that we should look into for future stories. Thanks for your comments. Alisa, Executive Editor

    • Brian

      Actually wind turbines do not need rare earths and only 5% do.

      All nuclear power plants need rare earths though, and uranium ore is usually rare earths ore too. Uranium and rare earths ores are both the dirtiest mining we have, but nuclear needs much more uranium ore than the entire world uses rare earths. The amount of uranium ore needed for a nuclear power plant is 1000’s of times more than recycled rooftop solar pv.

      Nuclear needs load following and peak generators, the very same alternator that solar and wind need. Nuclear needs pumped hydro which was built for it.

      Solar would need 1% of the land to produce all the world’s energy, wind about the same.

      Nuclear needs coal sized mining operations. The pro nuclear people always forget the mining. They try to forget the million years too.

      Then they try and forget that uranium will run short in ten years. IAEA Pub1104_scr.pdf

      Nuclear costs 4 times available solar and wind BEFORE GOV BREAKS Lazard(energy version 9),

      Nuclear mining, operations and waste kill more birds than wind. Nuclear kills people and all types of animals well

      Nuclear power plant wastes per plant per year: 27 tons spent fuel rod waste. deadly for a million years, 2M tons of toxic mining wastes.

      Nuclear power is also deadly causing a calculated several million cancers with it’s disasters and leaks.

  • HW developer

    Nuclear power industry has been globally flat for last ten years, and it currently can not pay its bills to compete with not only NG, but also solar. Both NG and solar are now regularly hitting PPA’s at 5-cents/kWh. Now solar PPA with storage are going at sub-5-cent PPA’s. Nuclear power simply can not compete, even with 50 years of massive taxpayer subsidization. That is the simple economics.

    • ajbarba

      Yes, that’s the economics, but is there a justification in keeping this carbon free energy source going, despite the costs? That’s the debate going on right now and it will be interesting to see where the Trump Administration comes down on this. Thanks for engaging. Alisa B, Inside Energy editor.