Company is attempting to restart a shuttered US nuclear plant for the first time

Nuclear power plants have been shut down in recent years over activist concerns about safety, but one shuttered US nuclear power plant is trying to get a new start.
John Loeffler
A nuclear power plant
A nuclear power plant

Max Labeille/iStock 

For the first time in the US, a decommissioned nuclear reactor is trying to be restarted thanks to the efforts of Michigan's governor and a company that normally tears old nuclear reactors down.

Nuclear power is an essential part of powering the modern world, with more than 400 nuclear reactors operating in more than two dozen countries around the world. But safety concerns and aging facilities mean many reactors are being shut down at the end of their life and new ones aren't being built fast enough to replace them.

Such was the case in Michigan with the Palisades Nuclear Generating Station, which was bought by Holtec Decommissioning International after its previous owner, Entergy, shut it down in June 2022. Originally destined to be dismantled, the 800-megawatt reactor — which had provided the state of Michigan with 5% of its electricity — had a number of complaints about poor maintenance and what the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission called one of the world instances of nuclear fuel container weakening in the nation, according to an Associated Press report.

Still, Michigan Governor Gretchen has been supportive of the effort from Holtec to bring the plant back to life. “Keeping Palisades open is critical for Michigan’s competitiveness and future economic development opportunities,” Whitmer wrote in a letter to Jennifer Granholm, a former Michigan governor herself and the current US Energy Secretary, in a federal funding request to help kickstart the restart.

Critics of the proposal argue point out that there have been serious issues with this plant, including a degraded seal on a device that helped control the atomic reaction that forced the previous owner to close the plant down weeks earlier than originally anticipated.

“This is uncharted risk territory,” said Kevin Kamps, a radioactive waste specialist with Beyond Nuclear, a group opposing the restart of the Palisades nuclear facility. The group has pledged to fight the reopening.

Why restart the plant?

Though the plan was originally to dismantle the facility, the passage of a recent $6 billion US initiative to prolong the life of aging nuclear facilities prompted the turnaround by Holtec.

“Nuclear reactors support energy independence by ensuring the reliable availability of clean, resilient and affordable power,” the Energy Department said back in March 2023 in an announcement of the opening of a second round of funding applications for older nuclear plants.

Palisades was denied funding in the first round of applications late last year, which was only available to plants still in operation. Now, Holtec is looking for roughly $1.3 billion in funding (about $1 billion of it from the federal government and about $300 million from the state of Michigan), under a different program that might prove more successful.

Holtec President Kelly Trice says that government funding was essential to getting the plant restarted and that the company would also need regulatory exemptions and a power utility willing to buy the power from the plant. Trice did not say how much it would actually cost to restart the plant.

Can the plant be restarted?

Actually restarting the plant isn't expected to be easy, according to nuclear experts.

In addition to the technical challenges, there are significant regulatory hurdles that need to be cleared. For one, Holtec doesn't have a license to operate Palisades nuclear reactor, so it would need to secure one before the plant can be restarted. In addition, the company would need to hire and train hundreds of plant staff to operate the reactor as well as comb through the facility to find and replace worn-out or broken parts and equipment, something that was a known issue with the plant for years prior to its shutting down.

What's more, it's unlikely that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would even grant a license to operate the reactor without the plant being repaired and upgraded to standard upfront, which would be a huge cost (and gamble) for Holtec. “They would have to put applications before technical staff, provide evidence to show that what they’re requesting is in accordance with the law and meets our basic requirements for maintaining public health and safety,” NRC spokesperson Scott Burnell said.

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