Cracked and dangerous reactor should be ‘autopsied’ as part of decommissioning
By Linda Pentz Gunter
Sometimes good things happen. Or at least the right thing. Sometimes we win one.
Last May, Entergy Corporation, the owner of the Palisades single unit nuclear power plant in Covert, Michigan, announced it was closing the reactor for good. This was a huge relief because Palisades was — and is —arguably the most dangerously degraded reactor in the United States.
At 51, the Palisades reactor was having more than a mid-life crisis. It was in possession of the most embrittled reactor pressure vessel in the country; it had a severely degraded reactor lid; and its steam generators were worn out — all key safety components.
As my Beyond Nuclear colleague, Kevin Kamps, who’s from Michigan said, “we are thankful that this reactor has indeed been shut down before it melted down.”
But there was a wrinkle. The reactor was sold to Holtec, a notorious US company with a spotty track record, which has been buying up reactors in order to decommission them. It has already faced a number of accusations over its decommissioning procedures at the closed Oyster Creek reactor site in New Jersey.
However, when the Biden administration started dangling $6 billion in funding via the Civil Nuclear Credit program in front of struggling reactor owners — in an effort to keep nuclear power plants running —Holtec made a grab for a share of the handout.
Luckily, there was a problem. Holtec does not have an operating license for Palisades. Nor has it ever operated a nuclear reactor so another company would need to be found to do that. The reactor was out of fuel. And of course there were all those technical and safety problems that would have to be addressed and, presumably, paid for.
Late last week, the US Department of Energy turned down Holtec’s request for funding from the Civil Nuclear Credit program, which would potentially have given the green light to Holtec to reopen Palisades.
Newly re-elected Michigan governor, Gretchen Whitmer, had, somewhat inexplicably, supported Holtec’s bid. Was it merely a strategic move to try to win votes? Perhaps she is now secretly breathing a sigh of relief that she won’t have to follow through. Reopening Palisades, sitting on the southeastern shore of Lake Michigan, would once again have put the safety of the Great Lakes, the drinking water supply for 40 million people, at risk, not to mention the surrounding populations as well.
The fuel was removed from the Palisades reactor core in June, meaning it cannot melt down. However, as Kamps said in a press statement last Friday, “the likely more than 700 metric tons of highly radioactive nuclear fuel, containing more than 1,800 pressurized water reactor assemblies, and comprising more than 150 million curies of hazardous radioactivity, still represent a very significant risk”.
Holtec may not be allowed to raise reactors from the dead, but the company is still eager to enter the reactor business. It is pinning its hopes on its own small modular reactor design — the SMR 160 — for which the company has already received $147.5 million from the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program. They hope to build it at the decommissioned Oyster Creek site.
“This concept is only preliminary, “Holtec spokesman, Joe Delmar said in January 2021. Preliminary and likely elusive, joining a raft of SMR applications that are more mirage than reality.
What could, and should happen next at Palisades, however, is something that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has consistently dodged. This would be to take advantage of yet another US reactor closing and examine it fully. It’s what at Beyond Nuclear we describe as a reactor autopsy.
Before issuing license extensions to other similar reactors, it is essential — and should be mandatory —to know precisely what effect many decades of a very harsh radiological operating environment has had on key reactor parts and safety systems. This would mean taking real world aged samples from closed reactors, rather than modeling aging effects on a computer as is currently the practice.
As Paul Gunter, Beyond Nuclear’s director of radioactive oversight, said in a communication to the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research: “The strategic harvesting and laboratory analysis of ‘real world’ aged samples taken from nuclear power stations (decommissioning and operating) are necessary for the verification and validation of the reliability and safety of systems, structures and components projected for the subsequent license renewal period.”
A report by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory released in December 2017 had already recommended harvesting in order to inform and support subsequent license renewals. But after Beyond Nuclear’s Gunter drew attention to the report at an NRC meeting, it miraculously vanished from three websites. When it returned, it had been scrubbed of scores of mentions of technical knowledge gaps.
Given what we already know about the terrible condition of Palisades — and with a slew of Subsequent License Renewals waiting in the wings at the NRC —the agency should order a full autopsy on Palisades before Holtec buries it in what is effectively an unmarked grave. As the supposed safety regulator, the NRC owes this to the millions still living around operating reactors whose licenses could be extended out to 80 or even 100 years.
Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear and writes for and curates Beyond Nuclear International.
Headline photo of Palisades nuclear power plant by U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.