Anti-Nuclear Power Groups File Federal Court Appeal of Michigan’s Palisades Plant

photo of palisades nuclear plant

Don’t Waste Michigan and the Nuclear Information Resource Service (NIRS) have filed an appeal with a federal appeals court in Washington DC charging that the Palisades Nuclear Plant in Covert, Michigan violate earthquake-safety regulations by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The groups allege that containers of spent and irradiated fuel rods that sit 150 yards from water are a threat to both environmental and human health. The two groups argue that underwater submersion could cause the nuclear waste to overheat and cause a radioactive release. The issue is being addressed in the federal appeals court as all administrative approaches with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have been exhausted.

The two groups have expressed concern over the safety of the Palisades nuclear power plant for decades, most recently objecting to the Nuclear Regulator Commission’s approval of a twenty-year license extension for Palisades.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Endorses Palisades Plant as Anti-Nuclear Groups Continue to Organize

A media report by WOOD TV 8 on Wednesday declared that “Palisades Nuclear Power Plant has essentially been given a thumbs up” by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The NRC, who is charged with the task of monitoring nuclear power plants for violations and handling license renewals, is currently in the process of reviewing Palisades’ license. Inspectors with the NRC have reviewed the plant’s operations and have determined that its eight violations are minor and were not a threat to public safety, despite the serious nature of some of the violations. Moreover, the Commission has stated that eight is “about average” for plants around the country.

Environmental and anti-nuclear groups are continuing to organize against the plant, with West Michigan and national groups holding a teleconference for the media on Tuesday. A coalition of twenty groups including Alliance for the Great Lakes, Clean Water Action, Coalition for a Nuclear-Free Great Lakes, Don’t Waste Michigan, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, Michigan Environmental Council, Sierra Club Michigan Chapter, and the West Michigan Environmental Action Council are currently organizing to prevent Palisades’ license from being renewed. In April, three of the groups working to prevent Palisades’ license renewal—Coalition for a Nuclear—Free Great Lakes, Don’t Waste Michigan, and Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS)—released a report on the threats of “high level atomic waste mishaps” at Palisades and cited internal NRC documents obtain via the Freedom of Information Act that challenged the NRC’s claim that an October 2005 incident in which a nuclear waste container remained suspended above its storage pool for two days was not a threat. NRC documents show that had the container dropped, the spent fuel pool could have sustained severe damage and, had the pool been cracked, triggered a situation in which considerable amounts of high-level radiation could have been released, thereby setting off a scenario described in other NRC documents that would have been similar to the Chernobyl disaster. The coalition has also filed a petition for enforcement along with a supporting declaration from a former NRC dry cask storage inspector warning that Palisades’ dry cask storage of nuclear waste violate the NRC’s earthquake safety regulations. The coalition also submitted 45 pages of official comment to the NRC on May 18 on the NRC’s environmental impact statement and launched a petition drive to deny the plant’s license renewal.

Consumers Energy, who operates Palisades and relies on its nuclear power for 18% of its electricity, is seeking a 20-year extension to a forty-year license awarded to the plant in 1971. Despite the fact that the current license does not expire until 2011, Palisades’ license is currently up for renewal. Opponents of nuclear power have long voiced concerns that Palisades’ old reactor is “brittle” and therefore a safety risk, that the storage of nuclear waste on site would be catastrophic in the event of an earthquake, and that the plant is an environmental risk.

Exposure to Radiation Raises Questions about Palisades License Renewal

Recent “incidents” at Palisades nuclear power plant near South Haven, has many questioning whether or not the plant’s 40 year license should be renewed for another 20 years. The plant, one of three in Michigan, is among the oldest in the country and has a troubled history.

A “procedural” error at the Palisades nuclear plant along Lake Michigan near South Haven is raising questions about the plant’s renewal process. The exposure, caused by a mishandling of a two-part underwater storage container, resulted in six to ten workers being exposed to radiation when a portion of the container rose above the surface. According to preliminary reports the workers were exposed to 50 millirems where the annual federal limit is 5,000 with no reported health affects. A company spokesperson dismissingly likened the exposure to having three chest x-rays in a recent media report.

The incident is now being investigated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), a government agency charged with the task of monitoring and managing the country’s nuclear industry. The NRC is the same body that will decide whether Palisades—currently under a 40-year license set to expire on March 24, 2011—will get the 20-year operating extension that its owner—Consumers Energy—is seeking. Consumers Energy relies on Palisades’ nuclear power for 18% of its total electrical capacity and indeed some 20% of the electrical power consumed by the average person in West Michigan comes from nuclear sources according to data published on the back of electric bills. The renewal process will be completed in early 2007 with the NRC currently soliciting comment on the plant’s environmental impact.

The aforementioned incident is the second one to be revealed in the past month, with activists raising serious questions about safety risks from the plant. Last month the Detroit Free Press reported that a 110-ton load of nuclear waste dangled for 55 hours above a cooling pool last October when two workers improperly manipulated a frozen crane. The plant was cited for a minor safety violation but no fines were imposed. Under the NRC’s worst case scenario, if the suspended load had dropped a fire could have ignited and formed a radioactive cloud that could have exposed thousands of people to fatal levels of radiation. Such a drop could have only been trigged by an earthquake or another such incident, yet it was a serious concern, despite the fact that the NRC did not include the incident in its daily log of nuclear power plant “irregularities” (the log includes things as trivial as alarms that accidentally go off). The incident also was not included in the NRC’s Internet list of daily reports or in reports filed by plant operators with the NRC.

Palisades, which began operating in 1971, is one of the oldest nuclear power plants in the country with a safety record that the Kalamazoo Gazette described as “patchy” citing the fact that the plant was closed down once in its early years for “operational problems” and fines levied against Consumers Energy for four different incidents and procedures in the mid-1990s that included a broken fuel rod and mechanical problems. In April 2001, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality issued a violation to the plant for discharging a “minor oil sheen” into Lake Michigan and issued another violation in February of 2002 for a septic-system overflow “onto beach sands.” The reactor has also been described as “brittle” with the NRC identifying Palisades as having the fifth most “embrittled” reactor in the country’s 102 nuclear power plants. “Embrittlement” is caused as reactors are bombarded with years of radioactivity and eventually weaken due to the strain and become susceptible to rupturing that would result in super-heated fuel burning through the floor and foundation of the plant until it reached the underground water table, causing catastrophic radiation exposure. Additionally, radioactive waste is currently being stored at Palisades on a “temporary” basis until the United States can find a long-term storage site such as the proposed Yucca Mountain site. However, Yucca Mountain is expected to be filled by 2010, resulting in a situation where the 585 tons of radioactive waste generated by Palisades from 1971 to 2011 could be stored there, the expected 300 tons of waste that will be generated during the renewed license period from 2011 to 2031 will likely be stored on the Lake Michigan shoreline. There are also concerns about a meltdown and large-scale radiation release from Palisades that the NRC predicted would cause 1,000 fatalities and 7,000 injuries in the first year and 10,000 cancer deaths over time.

Opponents of the plant have not just raised questions about the condition of Palisades, but the licensing process as a whole, which they say simply “rubber stamps” nuclear power plants when their licenses expire. They site the fact that in the past few years, all thirty nuclear plants that have applied for license renewals have received a renewed license with little government scrutiny. Opponents also raise concerns that spent nuclear material—now stored on the shore of Lake Michigan at Palisades—is not included in the license renewal process and is governed under a separate process. The renewal process looks only at the nuclear plants’ environmental impact and safety. Already, regulators have told people participating in public comment sessions on Palisades that there is no reason not to renew its license. According to the NRC, Palisades is located within habitats for endangered plants and animals and the plant does discharge radiation into the air and heated water into Lake Michigan, but the totals are well within federal limits.

For more information on Palisades, visit Palisades Reactor Watch