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U.S. Dept of Energy commits $1.5 billion to try to reopen a Michigan nuclear power plant

The U.S. Department of Energy is throwing a $1.52 billion lifeline to try and reopen the Palisades Nuclear Plant in southwest Michigan. Instead of working to eventually tear the hulking plant down, the plant’s new owners are hoping to make history, becoming the first completely shuttered nuclear plant to restart operations.

The U.S. Department of Energy announced the decision Wednesday, with Secretary of Energy and former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm visiting the plant.

“While this conditional commitment demonstrates the Department’s intent to finance the project, the company must satisfy certain technical, legal, environmental, and financial conditions before the Department enters into definitive financing documents and funds the loan,” a Department of Energy press release read.

The money would pay to upgrade the plant according to the release, “to produce baseload clean power until at least 2051.” The plant would need approval from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to move forward on a restart.

The Palisades plant is in Van Buren County’s Covert Township, about 80 miles east-northeast of Chicago. Federal regulators allowed Palisades to begin operating in March, 1971. When Palisades closed in May of 2022, it was the oldest of three operating nuclear power plants in Michigan. Tucked in between large sand dunes near Lake Michigan, the 800 megawatt facility had generated roughly 5% of the state’s electricity.

Holtec Decommissioning International bought Palisades from Louisiana-based Entergy for the expressed purpose of safely and efficiently decommissioning the plant. By June 2022, plant workers removed the fuel from the plant’s reactor and placed it in the spent fuel pool, where it typically cools for a few years. Holtec estimates to complete decommissioning in 2041.

But the federal government’s new Civil Nuclear Credit Program made possible through the federal Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 changed Palisades’ course.

Democrats, including Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, say nuclear plants are a part of the state’s carbon-free energy future. Whitmer called it a “top priority” in a letter to U.S. Energy Secretary Granholm in April 2022, shortly before the plant shutdown.

The DOE denied Holtec’s first application.

“This would be unprecedented to be able to turn around the closure of a plant, but this is also unprecedented funding that was coming out, so it seemed like it was worth a shot,” Michigan Public Service Commissioner Katherine Peretick told the Michigan Public Radio Network in November 2022. Determined, Holtec reapplied last year, after DOE’s second cycle of fundsexpanded to include plants, like Palisades, that had recently ceased operations.

This round, even a bipartisan group of Michigan’s Congressional delegation signed a letter in support of the government loans. “The repowering of Palisades represents a critical step in addressing energy shortages, supporting the fight to lower carbon emissions, and promoting economic growth,” they wrote.

Though Holtec does have a deal to sell electricity if the plant were to be reopened, and financial backing from the state and federal government, the unprecedented reopening of a closed plant will face many more obstacles.

Restarting the plant would be “a massive challenge” according to experts in a report from The Associated Press. “In addition to hiring and training hundreds of operators and engineers, the company would have to check thousands of parts — making repairs or replacements as needed — and order more uranium fuel,” the AP reported. Nuclear power opponents are prepared to try and block the restart.

Palisades has had numerous mechanical problems in recent years. Leaks, particularly from a seal that controlled the atomic reaction inside the vessel, plagued the plant until its final day of operation. Anti-nuclear power activists are determined to resist the restart “at every twist and turn” Kevin Kamps of Beyond Nuclear wrote in a press release.

“We are determined to prevent the State of Michigan, DOE, NRC, and Holtec from restarting Palisades, at extreme risk to safety, security, health, and the environment. The Great Lakes shore is one of the worst places in the world for these government and industry schemes to play radioactive Russian roulette, where we could lose everything,” Kamps said.

Don’t Waste Michigan, Michigan Safe Energy Future and other groups also oppose reopening the plant. Reaction from environmental groups had been mixed, Great Lakes Now reported earlier this month.

The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission would need to reauthorize power operations at Palisades and “several other regulatory actions would be required for the facility to resume operations” the NRC said in a previous statement.

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