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Great Lakes community contemplates nuclear plant closure

Marketplace Contributor May 1, 2017
Palisades Nuclear Plant sits on the shore of Lake Michigan in Covert, Michigan. Rebecca Thiele

Great Lakes community contemplates nuclear plant closure

Marketplace Contributor May 1, 2017
Palisades Nuclear Plant sits on the shore of Lake Michigan in Covert, Michigan. Rebecca Thiele

Editor’s note (5/2/2017):  Rebecca Thiele is a reporter for WMUK in Kalamazoo, Mich. 

Back in the 1970s and ’80s, Great Lakes beaches were the perfect spot for nuclear power plants. The fresh water helped cool nuclear reactors and small, lakeshore towns got jobs. Today nuclear power plants are finding it hard to compete with cheaper energy sources, forcing some to shut down. That’s divided one community on Lake Michigan that relies on Palisades Nuclear Power Plant.

Mike Neiss of South Haven, Michigan, worked at Palisades for a short time in the 1980s.

“It’s just a very sad thing, and I think it’s not only going to affect us economically, but socially the town will change as well,” he said. “Since it’s going to be pretty much summer home owners and summer rentals. And we’re going to miss that neighborhood and that community feel.”

Other residents are happy to see the plant go. Palisades is one of the oldest nuclear plants in the country and has had several emergency shutdowns.

“If we had an accident, we would lose our tourist industry, we would lose our orchards, our agriculture, our wineries — just everything that I like about this part of the world,” Rosemary Thurber said.

Several nuclear plants are shutting down nationwide thanks to changes in the energy sector. Natural gas prices have plummeted.

“They’ve just reduced the price of electricity to the point that the operators of nuclear power plants find it very difficult to compete,” said Gene Grecheck of the American Nuclear Society, a group made up of workers in the nuclear industry. Nuclear also doesn’t receive as many tax credits for energy production as wind and solar.

Closing nuclear power plants can devastate a small town, and not just because people will be out of work. Van Buren County Administrator Doug Cultra said Palisades employees are often community leaders. They’re soccer coaches and school board members.

Mr. Smith’s eighth grade math class at Covert Public Schools. The district has many low-income, minority students and has outperformed many districts in the state like it. 

“We’re talking about some highly skilled, intelligent people, and it’s disappointing to think we’ll lose some of those people,” he said.

Covert Public Schools gets about half its funding from taxes on Palisades Nuclear Plant — $4 million a year. Most of Covert’s students are low-income, and many are minorities. However, for three years in a row, the district has outperformed similar schools. Those dollars make a difference, said Superintendent Bobbi Morehead.

“Our children … they definitely beat the odds every day,” she said.

Most school districts in Michigan set aside 5 percent of the money left over at the end of a budget year as a kind of rainy-day fund. Covert is setting aside 65 percent in anticipation of the plant closing.

The memory of Palisades will continue long after it closes. Its owner, Louisiana-based Entergy Corp., will have to tear down the buildings and clean up any contamination at the site. That could take up to 60 years.

The radioactive waste will stay on the Lake Michigan shoreline until the federal government finds a permanent storage site for spent nuclear fuel. Palisades officials said the waste will be safe in 20-foot-tall canisters called casks.

“The casks are steel and concrete, weigh thousands of pounds and can withstand natural disasters,” said Val Gent, senior communications specialist for Palisades.

Residents like Neiss aren’t as confident in the safety of the radioactive waste.

“I’m sure it’s as safe as they can possibly make it, but to know that it’s sitting there on the beach is not a comforting thing,” he said.

The local utility still has to end its agreement with Entergy. If that isn’t approved by the state public service commission, Entergy says it will “re-evaluate its plans.”

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