- The shuttered Palisades nuclear power plant in southwest Michigan may be reopened if regulators approve it.
- The 80-megawatt plant has been closed since 2022, but there is a need for its dispatchable, carbon free electricity, and the federal and Michigan governments are funding its resuscitation.
- The plant has buyers for its output, and if its reopening is authorized by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it will be the first ever reopening of a closed commercial reactor.
Holtec International filed with regulators at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to reopen a shuttered nuclear power plant in Michigan, that, if successful, would allow the first ever U.S. reopening of a closed commercial reactor. The Palisades plant is an 800 megawatt plant in southwest Michigan that would employ more than 600 workers. It had operated for more than 50 years. Holtec had bought Palisades last year to decommission it. The plant shut in May 2022, after discovery of a problem with a control rod drive seal and because of competition from natural gas-fired electricity and heavily-subsidized renewable power. Prospects for nuclear power have improved as it represents a reliable, non-carbon source of electricity that is not weather-driven and intermittent as are solar and wind power. Holtec wants to reopen Palisades by August, 2025, and will address the control rod seal issue ahead of a restart.
There are a series of regulatory hurdles, however, to restart Palisades that are “surmountable.” The hurdles, some of which have been addressed, include financial commitment from the state of Michigan, maintenance and delayed capital improvements of the facility, procuring a power purchase agreement, upgrading the switchyard, partnering with an NRC licensed operator for the restart, staffing an additional 400 or so qualified and trained staff and, a successful application from the Department of Energy (DOE).
Holtec has applied for a loan from the DOE’s Loan Programs Office to help restart the plant and expects to hear about its application late this year or in 2024. In July, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed a budget that provides $150 million in funding for a Palisades restart. Last month, Holtec signed an agreement with Wolverine Power Cooperative, a not-for-profit energy provider, to purchase up to two-thirds of the power generated by Palisades. Wolverine’s nonprofit rural electric cooperative project partner, Hoosier Energy, will purchase the balance. The agreement also contains a contract expansion provision to include up to two small modular reactors that Holtec intends to build and commission at the site.
President Biden’s administration said nuclear power is a crucial source of virtually emissions-free electricity generation that should be maintained and expanded to reach a pledge of 100 percent non-carbon electricity by 2035. The Biden administration launched a $6 billion program to help save nuclear plants with funding generated by the bipartisan infrastructure bill. The first phase of the Civil Nuclear Credit program was meant to keep Palisades and California’s Diablo Canyon plant, owned by PG&E Corp, from shutting.
U.S. Nuclear Reactors and China’s Plans
The United States has 92 nuclear reactors—12 less than its peak in 2012 of 104 nuclear reactors. While the nation has more nuclear reactors than any other country, China is expected to surpass the United States as the largest producer of nuclear power within a decade. The United States produces 30.3 percent of the world’s nuclear generation, but it has been shuttering nuclear reactors while China has been building them. China is expected to triple its nuclear generating supply in 10 years and has 21 nuclear reactors under construction with a capacity of 21.61 gigawatts, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. That amount is more than two and a half times more nuclear reactors under construction than any other country.
China started its nuclear program by buying reactors from France, the United States and Russia, and built a primary homegrown reactor, the Hualong, with cooperation from France. It now is on track for a massive scale up of 150 gigawatts of nuclear power in 15 years. China can dominate nuclear power growth because the government has strong control over the energy sector, and most of the economy. China built a state-supported, finance industry that allows it to build multiple nuclear units at lower cost. Its state financing, state supported supply chain, and a state commitment to build the technology allows for the massive build up in nuclear units. China is also way ahead of other countries in constructing its first small modular reactor (SMR) to be completed in 2025–the only model already approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
While the United States added Vogtle 3 to the grid in April 2023 and Vogtle 4 is expected to commence operation early in 2024, these nuclear units were decades in the planning and construction with no other new nuclear units in the queue or in the planning stage.
The United States may be bringing back a shuttered nuclear power plant in Michigan. The Biden administration is endorsing nuclear power as a carbon free source of power after it became evident that wind and solar power’s intermittency could not sustain Biden’s net zero pledge. Palisades is an 800 megawatt plant that could be operating in 2025 if the regulatory hurdles are overcome and the NRC approves its license. The United States still has the largest nuclear fleet in the world, but China is expected to surpass it within a decade.