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Will Nuclear Plant Closure Risk Michigan’s Zero-Carbon Future?

One of the state’s three nuclear plants will shut down this spring but climate activists worry that removing a major supplier from the power grid will impede the state’s ability to reach its 2050 carbon neutrality goals.

(TNS) — One of Michigan's three nuclear plants will shut down this spring after more than 50 years in operation, removing a major power supplier from the grid and, some climate advocates fear, hindering the state's ambitions to create a carbon-neutral economy.

Palisades Power Plant could continue operating from its 432-acre campus along Lake Michigan in Covert Township through 2031, when its license expires.

But Mississippi-based Entergy Nuclear instead is scheduled to shutter the plant May 31 and sell it to a New Jersey company for decommissioning.

Closing Palisades makes financial sense for Entergy and Consumers Energy, the Jackson-based utility company that is nearing the end of its long-term agreement to purchase Palisades' power.

But nuclear energy advocates are pushing state officials to keep Palisades open. Otherwise, they fear Michigan won't reach its zero-carbon goals.

"I struggle to believe we can get to a zero-carbon system without some component of it being nuclear," said Todd Allen, chair of the Glenn F. and Gladys H. Knoll Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences at the University of Michigan. "Any 100 percent zero-carbon system, just getting there has huge challenges."

Allen signed on to a letter distributed Feb. 14 to Michigan lawmakers by Protect Nuclear NOW, a coalition of pro-nuclear groups, California-based spokesman Ryan Pickering said.

While there are environmental issues related to mining and processing uranium fuel and the potential for radioactive releases should disaster strike, nuclear plants can produce lots of electricity without emitting greenhouse gases.

In their letter, nuclear energy advocates push lawmakers to "do whatever is needed to keep Palisades operational," arguing the source of greenhouse gas-free power is crucial to fulfilling state environmental officials' goal to reduce carbon emissions 52 percent by 2030, and have a carbon-neutral economy by 2050.

The advocates did not outline how the state could step in, and it's not clear what actions Michigan officials could take to stop the closure of Palisades. In December, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission agreed to let a New Jersey company, Holtec International, take over Palisades, paving the way for the facility's sale.

Nuclear power is not mentioned in the first draft of the state's strategy for meeting those goals, but the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy is reviewing the letter and feedback on the draft climate plan and is "seriously considering" how it will address nuclear power in future iterations, spokesman Hugh McDiarmid said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's office also is reviewing the nuclear advocates' letter, spokesman Bobby Leddy said.

Price and reliability are central to the national debate about nuclear energy, said Douglas Jester, managing partner of Lansing-based consulting firm 5 Lakes Energy and specialist in economics analysis and energy policy.

He pointed to a renewable energy study conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory that found commercially available renewable energy technologies would be "more than adequate" to supply 80 percent of the continental U.S.'s electricity demand.

Finding a carbon-free way to supply the last 20 percent is more challenging, Jester said.

"Some people point at solutions like (electricity) storage and hydrogen turbines and carbon capture and sequestration, and others say 'This would all be a lot easier if we had some base of nuclear in the mix to provide a chunk of that reliability,'" he said. "That's the debate that goes on: What's the best way to engineer a power system that is reliable and not too costly?"

Many states have decided nuclear plants are at least part of the answer. Two-thirds of the states plan to use nuclear energy to transition away from fossil fuels, according to a recent Associated Press survey.

Some states, including Nebraska and Illinois, are subsidizing nuclear energy plants through tax incentives and other programs. The bipartisan infrastructure law also put $6 billion into a new Civil Nuclear Credit Program to help prevent the closure of U.S. nuclear reactors for economic reasons, so long as owners can demonstrate the closure will lead to a rise in air pollution and the reactor can continue to operate safely.

While it does not produce carbon, nuclear energy is not considered a renewable source of power like wind and solar. Uranium, which powers most nuclear plants, is nonrenewable, the EIA said.

Uranium ore is mined or leached from rocks, activities that produce radioactive waste dangerous to humans and the environment. Most uranium used in the U.S. is imported, but some is mined from Western states, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Mining uranium and processing it into usable fuel are energy-intensive processes that are largely powered with fossil fuels, Jester said.

"The full nuclear life cycle is not free of greenhouse gases, but it's probably significantly superior to natural gas, or certainly coal, in that way," he said.

Despite decades of promises from the federal government, there is no permanent storage facility for radioactive waste. Much of it remains onsite at existing and decommissioned nuclear plants, including some around the Great Lakes.

Although disasters on the scale of Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island are rare, the risk of a major environmental catastrophe remains present at facilities that use or store radioactive material, said Margrethe Kearney, senior attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

"I think it's that magnitude of the risk that is problematic," she said. "Maybe you have a lower probability (of a disaster), but your magnitude of harm is pretty high."

The center does not have a stance on whether to continue nuclear power production. Kearney, based in Grand Rapids, encouraged communities to consider whether to keep nuclear facilities depending on factors including price, safety and how that power will be replaced.

"I think it's really important to be looking at specific case-by-case questions and concerns," she said.

In Palisades' case, Kearney said closing the plant will be OK.

Consumers Energy has "a plan to reduce carbon emissions," she said. It relies on some natural gas use, which climate advocates don't like, but in general moves to carbon-neutral production faster than other utilities, she said.

"And is it preferable to investing a lot of money into a nuclear power plant that will be very expensive and will eventually need to be shut down and decommissioned at a very high price?," Kearney said. "Yes, the plan is preferable to that."

Consumers built Palisades in the 1960s. It sold the plant to Entergy in 2007 for $380 million but agreed to continue purchasing electricity generated by the plant through this spring.

Nuclear has since become more expensive than other sources of power, said Brandon Hofmeister, Consumers Energy vice president for governmental, regulatory and public affairs.

At times, electricity from Palisades cost roughly 57 percent more per megawatt hour than the market price, he said.

The companies negotiated a buyout deal in 2016 that would have allowed Consumers to get out of the agreement for $172 million and, the company said, save customers another $172 million over time. The Michigan Public Service Commission approved the buyout, but only up to $142 million.

The companies stuck with the power purchase agreement, which remains in place until this spring. Palisades will close when the deal expires.

Entergy's nuclear plants are "challenged due to adverse market conditions, including low wholesale energy prices," Entergy spokeswoman Val Gent said. The company will keep the five nuclear plants it owns in rate-regulated power markets in the southern U.S., she said.

"While I understand from a Michigan standpoint and from a carbon standpoint the closure of Palisades is to some degree unfortunate, we do believe it's not a decision that we, Consumers, made," Consumer Energy's Hofmeister said. "It's really a decision the owner of the plant made, and we think we've got a great plan that balances affordability and moving to clean energy resources."

Palisades can provide 800 megawatts of power — about 10 percent of the Consumers' peak demand, Hofmeister said.

The utility plans to replace the Palisades power as well as power now generated by coal plants it will shutter by 2025 by helping customers decrease their energy use overall and especially during high-use times like hot summer afternoons, he said.

It also plans to purchase four natural gas plants and build solar and wind energy facilities, although Hofmeister said supply chain issues and local property use battles are delaying those developments.

The benefits of nuclear power balance some of the drawbacks with current renewable electricity technology, Allen said. A nuclear plant can produce more electricity in a smaller space than a solar array, and can produce a consistent amount of power in many weather conditions.

"Don't toss away your options" by abandoning nuclear power, he said, "because no pathway to zero carbon is super easy."

There are three nuclear power plants in Michigan — Palisades, DTE Energy's Fermi 2 Power Plant in Monroe County and Indiana Michigan Power Co.'s Donald C. Cook Nuclear Plant in Berrien County. The three plants accounted for 29 percent of Michigan's net generation in 2020, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports.

Some environmental groups are too dismissive of nuclear power and ideologically determined to power the country with wind and solar electricity alone, argued Alex Sagady, a retired environmental consultant based in East Lansing.

Replacing existing nuclear plants including Palisades is an expensive prospect that would require substantial space, he said.

"We have this existing nuclear fleet. These plants produce power 90 percent of the time. Nothing comes close to that. They are prodigious producers of electric power," he said. "If you replace the power of a nuclear plant with a renewable facility, you have not achieved any emission reduction."

(c)2022 The Detroit News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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