After more than 50 years of operation, the Palisades nuclear power plant was taken offline for the final time on May 20. The station was scheduled to be permanently shut down on May 31, but plant operators “made the conservative decision to shut down the plant early due to the performance of a control rod drive seal,” Entergy said.
The shutdown completes a respectable operating history for the 800-MW facility (Figure 1). In fact, the plant’s most-recent run set a site and world record for a plant of its kind, continuously generating electricity for 577 days since its last refueling. Palisades remains ranked in the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s highest safety category, and Entergy claims the station is regarded by its peers as one of the top performers in the industry.
Merchant Fleet Struggles
In December 2016, Entergy announced a plan to retire the Palisades plant in 2018. Although Entergy had a power purchase agreement (PPA) with Consumers Energy at the time, which committed Consumers to buying nearly all of the power generated at Palisades through April 2022, Entergy said Consumers’ customers would save as much as $172 million over four years, even after paying Entergy $172 million to terminate the contract. Entergy explained, “market conditions have changed substantially, and more economic alternatives are now available to provide reliable power to the region.”
Entergy’s decision to close Palisades was part of a bigger plan for the company to exit the merchant nuclear generation business. After deregulation substantially changed the electric industry in the late 1990s, Entergy acquired several nuclear plants, including Palisades, in regions where wholesale markets operated. At its peak, Entergy was operating six merchant nuclear units, with about 5,000 MW of capacity, along with five nuclear units in its regulated companies, also representing about 5,000 MW. As time progressed, reactors in the merchant fleet had trouble competing and were seen as liabilities, and the company took steps to get out of the merchant business, which included closing several plants and selling one.
However, in September 2017, plans to close Palisades (Figure 2) changed after the Michigan Public Service Commission said it would only grant recovery of $136.6 million of the $172 million Consumers had requested for the buyout of the PPA. Therefore, the decision was made to keep Palisades open until the PPA expired. Entergy said on Friday, “The shutdown of Palisades completes Entergy’s strategy to exit the merchant power generation business and coincides with the expiration of the station’s 15-year power purchase agreement with Consumers Energy.”
A Long History
The Palisades site covers 432 acres in western Covert Township, Van Buren County, Michigan, which is located approximately six miles south of the city of South Haven and 45 miles west of the city of Kalamazoo. Palisades was a single-unit pressurized water reactor designed and manufactured by Combustion Engineering. The plant had a Westinghouse turbine-generator (Figure 3), and the architect-engineer/constructor was Bechtel Power Corp.
Plant construction plans for Palisades were first announced on Jan. 28, 1966. Site excavation began on Aug. 25 that year. The first concrete was poured on March 4, 1967, and the reactor vessel was delivered to the site on Oct. 22, 1968. First nuclear chain reaction at Palisades occurred on May 24, 1971, and the first commercial power generation took place on Dec. 31, 1971. The unit had a maximum dependable capacity of 798 MW, but its record hourly output was 821 MWh, which occurred on Jan. 15, 2006.
Entergy completed the plant purchase from Consumers Energy for $380 million on April 11, 2007. The purchase also included receipt of the used fuel at Consumers’ decommissioned Big Rock Point Nuclear Plant, located in Charlevoix in northwestern Lower Michigan. Following the removal of used fuel from the Palisades reactor, the facility will be transferred to Holtec International “for purposes of a safe and timely decommissioning,” under the terms of an agreement between Entergy and Holtec.
“The enduring legacy of Palisades is the thousands of men and women who safely, reliably, and securely operated the plant, helping power Southwest Michigan homes and businesses for more than 50 years,” Darrell Corbin, site vice president, said in statement. “We refer to a credo at Palisades: ‘Palisades Proud.’ Thanks to the pride, professionalism, and hard work of our 600-member team, we finished Palisades Proud. We are also grateful to the local community for its support of the plant and for the strong partnership we have enjoyed all these years.”
Entergy said it has made several commitments to its employees at Palisades. Among the promises is that any employee willing to relocate to another Entergy facility would be provided a job for which they are qualified. Approximately 130 employees have accepted a job offer from Entergy within the southern utility service territory.
Another option as part of the company’s sale agreement with Holtec is that the new owner of the plant post-shutdown will hire approximately 260 current Palisades employees for the first phase of decommissioning. Holtec also agreed to honor existing collective bargaining agreement contracts with union employees. However, about 180 Palisades employees will separate from the company. Entergy said more than half of those employees are retirement eligible.
In a video posted by MLive Media Group, a Michigan-based news website, Bobby Walker, a Palisades maintenance worker who, after a 37-year career, decided to retire when the plant closed, and Jim Byrd, a nuclear operations shift manager who is transferring to another Entergy plant in Mississippi, reflected on their time working at the station (Figure 4).
“If Palisades would have stayed open, I would have stayed here until I retired. Both my kids were born here. This is home,” Byrd said. “It’s a small-town feel. The people from Palisades fit into this because we are a family. I don’t want to get emotional—it hurts—but we did our job, we did it well, and I will miss a lot of people.”
“Great people to work with—great management of Entergy to support us every day of our life, whatever I need, where they came to the plant and say, ‘We can do it.’ So, it kept me working here,” Walker said. “If you’ve been around these people every day, they make you laugh, they make you cry, they smile, but when it comes down to getting in the dirty grit, they are with you. The faithfulness, the commitment of these nuclear professionals, I wouldn’t want to work no other place. I would want to end my career right here at Palisades nuclear power plant in Covert, Michigan.”
“That plant is not Palisades. The 600 people are Palisades, and that is what I’m going to remember,” said Byrd.
—Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine).