The United States has lost yet another nuclear plant despite efforts by the Biden administration to prevent the nation’s largest source of carbon-free electricity from shrinking further.
The Palisades Nuclear Generating Station, an 800-megawatt reactor plant in southwestern Michigan, shut down more than a week earlier on Friday, dashing hopes that a final appeal from Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D) for federal funding could prevent the site from going offline.
The plant, with a capacity to supply 800,000 homes, operated safely for 50 years on the shores of Lake Michigan. But the facility, like many other US nuclear plants, has struggled to make money as cheap natural gas cobbled together its share of the electricity market.
Utility giant Entergy, which owns the plant, announced in 2017 that it would close the plant by 2022. Last month, Whitmer sent a letter at the Department of Energy formally requesting a share of a $6 billion fund the White House has established to bail out financially distressed but safe-to-operate reactors. Opened in 1971, the plant was licensed to operate until 2031. The plant was scheduled to close permanently on May 31.
But on Friday, Entergy said it brought forward the shutdown by 11 days after its operators identified a “performance issue” with a mechanical part of the reactor, a control rod drive seal, and “made the prudent decision to close the factory early”.
“The lasting legacy of Palisades resides in the thousands of men and women who have operated the plant safely, reliably and securely, helping to power homes and businesses in Southwest Michigan for more than 50 years. “, said Darrell Corbin, vice president of the Entergy site, in a Press release. “We refer to a credo at Palisades: ‘Palisades Proud.’ Thanks to the pride, professionalism and hard work of our 600 member team, we have completed Palisades Proud.
Once Entergy retires the reactor, it plans to sell the plant to New Jersey-based Holtec International, a maker of nuclear reactor components, to decommission the site.
Michigan generates most of its electricity by burning natural gas and coal, which cause climate change and release disease-causing particles into the air. If gas power replaces the electricity generated by Palisades, Michigan’s annual greenhouse gas emissions will increase by 2.8 million metric tons, according to a analysis federal data by pro-nuclear think tank The Breakthrough Institute. It is equivalent to add more than 600,000 cars to the road. If Great Lakes State’s coal-fired JH Campbell Power Plant makes up the difference, emissions will increase by 5.9 million metric tons, the equivalent of nearly 1.3 million more automobiles.
Fossil fuels have replaced nuclear power plants in virtually all places where reactors have been shut down. After the Fukushima disaster in 2011, Germany began rapidly shutting down its nuclear power plants even as it sought to open new coal mines. The country has become more dependent on Russian natural gas. Now, as the war in Ukraine forces Germany to cut its imports from Russia, Europe’s biggest economy is considering extending its deadline to cut coal altogether.
In April, the Indian Point Energy Center, the nuclear power plant that provided New York City’s bulk of zero-carbon electricity, closed permanently after decades of protests by environmentalists. Overnight, the share of fossil fuels in the grid that powers the country’s largest city soared to 90%.
Critics of nuclear power say the 80-year-old power source’s safety record does not justify the potentially catastrophic risks of human error, exemplified by the only two fatal reactor meltdowns in history, Fukushima and Chernobyl in 1986. Another less serious accident, the partial collapse of Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, stoked these fears closer to home. Portrayals in popular culture, including hit documentaries and mini-series about these past accidents, and Homer Simpson, the buffoonish nuclear power plant operator in “The Simpsons”, have made clear the risks associated with the atomic energy.
But pro-nuclear proponents say steady safety improvements and strict industry regulation make it a vital tool, especially given the unrivaled efficiency and reliability of generating electricity from the heat of a fission reaction. And they say the risks posed by fossil fuels, both to the planet’s habitability and the health of communities living nearby, are far greater.
Many environmentalists hope that renewables alone can provide enough electricity to phase out nuclear power and fossil fuels simultaneously. But solar and wind power are weather-dependent and require large numbers of panels and turbines to produce electricity in the volumes needed to match fission or fossil. Improved transmission infrastructure would help move renewable electricity from where it is plentiful to where it is needed, but local opposition to power lines has made building them difficult. And the more climate-polluting sectors like transportation and building heating switch to electric alternatives, the more that electricity will be needed on the grid.
The Diablo Canyon Power Plant, California’s last nuclear plant and the source of nearly 10% of the state’s electricity, is now the next of some 90 other US plants scheduled to close in 2025.
Despite already contributing by far the largest share of humanity’s cumulative carbon dioxide mess in the atmosphere, the United States has struggled to reduce emissions in the face of mounting disasters fueled by global warming and to the dire warnings of scientists. The country’s carbon output rose 6% last year as the economy rebounded from pandemic-related lockdowns. Emissions are expected to rise another 2% this year.