Nuclear Pollution

Looming nuclear plant closure may put Michigan climate goals out of reach

The looming closure of the Palisades nuclear power plant at month’s end may push Michigan’s short-term climate goals out of reach, both industry experts and energy regulators agreed.

The loss of 800 megawatts of carbon-free energy from the nuclear plant along Lake Michigan near South Haven is likely to result in more gas greenhouse emissions elsewhere as the electric sector pivots to natural gas while more solar and wind generation comes online.

In Michigan, the state’s climate plan calls for 60 percent of the state’s power to come from renewable sources within the next eight years. Incremental goals in that plan are seen as a factor in the governor’s attempt to keep Palisades running: the plant’s closure will leave a vacuum in already available emissions-free energy.

“It makes the hill tougher to climb,” said Dan Scripps, chairman of the Michigan Public Service Commission.

Some suggest that despite the late hour, the plant’s closure may be avoided should federal assistance arrive in time and a new buyer can be found to run the plant until its licensing expires in 2031. Officials say high-level talks to achieve that are underway.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer made a last-minute play to keep the 50-year-old nuclear power plant operating past its long-planned closure date at the end of this month, after President Joe Biden last month announced a $6 billion program to rescue nuclear plants at risk of closing. Whether it will be in time for the Palisades remains unclear, though E&E News reported a top US energy official recently confirmed the Michigan plant remains on schedule to close May 31.

That will mean more carbon emissions – at least in the next several years – from an uptick in natural gas plants that are cheaper to operate by power generation companies.

“Long term, they believe that they’ll move towards more renewables, but in the short term, they’re absolutely putting more carbon into the air,” said Todd Allen, professor and chairperson of the University of Michigan’s nuclear engineering department.

“I don’t think you can argue that it’s good from a climate change perspective, because you’re replacing something that produces no emissions with something that does.”

Beyond climate impacts, the Palisades power plant closure will come with the loss of 600 jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in annual economic impact.

Palisades nuclear power plant in Covert, Michigan pictured in March of 2012. (MLive file photo)

Palisades is owned by Entergy Corp. of Louisiana, which is set to close and sell the plant and the former Big Rock Point shoreline nuclear power site in Charlevoix, to Holtec International of Florida, which intends to terminate the license, perform restoration, and accept spent fuel management liabilities at both sites .

Entergy officials confirmed they are on track to shut down Palisades on May 31, with the planned sale to Holtec shortly thereafter. Entergy does not intend to remain in the merchant nuclear business, officials said.

Entergy Chief Executive Officer Leo Denault said during last week’s earnings call that the last step in the company’s exit from the nuclear market is nearly complete, even should any last-minute money from the federal government arrive.

“We are supportive of federal initiatives to keep nuclear plants operating. However, we are five years into the Palisades shutdown process, and we are far down the path. There are significant technical and commercial hurdles to changing course at this point,” Denault said. “That said, alongside Holtec, we will work with any qualified party that wants to explore acquiring the plant and obtaining federal funding.”

Officials in Whitmer’s office did not respond to MLive’s requests for comment.

Authorities in both Washington and Michigan said it remains a priority to continue with as much nuclear energy as possible as a carbon-free source of power to combat climate change. That’s why there’s a last-ditch effort to keep Palisades and other nuclear plants across the nation running.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said US nuclear power plants provide more than half of the nation’s carbon-free electricity and the administration wants to keep them running to reach clean energy goals.

“We’re using every tool available to get this country powered by clean energy by 2035,” she said.

Between 20 and 25 percent of Michigan’s overall electricity comes from the three currently operating nuclear power plants in the state, what Scripps called a critical “part of the puzzle” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and meet newly established state climate goals.

“There’s no question that the loss of 812 megawatts of generation is going to have an impact,” he said.

Scripps remains confident, though, that the federal Department of Energy financing could swoop in and save the plant from final shutdown. The plant closure is based on business, he said, not intentional climate action to meet emissions reduction goals.

“It’s a reliable unit; it had its best year of operations last year. There is no reason other than economic pressures to close it before the end of its license. It is fully licensed to operate safely through 2031,” he said.

Industry officials confirmed nuclear power from Palisades costs more than other types of generation, and that is why they will switch to natural gas plants until more solar and other more cost-effective renewable generation develops.

“Nuclear energy just became not really the best value in the market today. And so, Entergy decided that they’re going to exit the wholesale nuclear business completely which is why they have decided to close Palisades,” said Josh Paciorek, Consumers Energy spokesman.

The utility company currently buys the power Palisades generates, he said, which amounts to about 10 percent of its peak load. They do have plans to get power for customers elsewhere.

Consumers would purchase the natural gas-fired Covert Generating Station near South Haven, and an existing methane plant to offset system reliability concerns. Natural gas and methane plants do generate significant greenhouse gas emissions, though not as much as coal-fired plants.

Natural gas currently makes up about 31 percent of the company’s generating capacity. It will increase in coming years to 40 percent before dropping to 10 percent by 2040, Paciorek said.

Consumers intends to build out 8,000 megawatts of solar energy over the next two decades and close all three coal-fired units at the JH Campbell power plant in Ottawa County by 2025, according to a proposed settlement with a stakeholder coalition as part of the company’s long -term energy plan.

Not everyone remains eager to see Palisades rescued, though.

Critics of nuclear energy are celebrating the expected plant closure, arguing the abandonment of Palisades and the future closure of coal plants across Michigan will force the industry to invest in solar more heavily, along with wind and energy storage capacity.

An Indigenous activist with Citizens Resistance at Fermi Two in Monroe and board member for the Native American Indian Association of Detroit named Jesse James Deer in Water spoke last week during a state House Energy Committee hearing on a bill to fund a feasibility study for future nuclear energy in Michigan.

He argued nuclear energy supply chains create environmental injustices and the risk of radioactive pollution; he also argued plenty of carbon emissions are generated through uranium mining and processing, even if nuclear power plants do not directly generate carbon emissions.

Additionally, the binational International Joint Commission recently received a report from its Water Quality Board that raised about long-term storage of nuclear waste along Great Lakes shorelines, such as at Palisades and Big Rock Point. The report said nuclear waste will remain a substantial problem as long as there remains no federal long-term storage facility and the hazards of climate change continue to accelerate within the Great Lakes Basin – North America’s most valuable fresh water resource.

Scripps said a decision about whether federal financing will save Palisades is expected in mid-June, after Entergy stops running the nuclear power plant but before the sale to Holtec is finalized.

Related articles:

Gov. Whitmer asks for federal dollars to keep Michigan nuclear power plant open

Michigan climate plan calls for 60 percent renewable power by 2030

Consumers Energy agrees to retire full Campbell plant, end coal by 2025

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