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A Return To 'Safety First' For Michigan Nuclear Plant

It's been quiet at the Palisades nuclear power plant after five unexpected shutdowns in 2011.
Mark Savage
It's been quiet at the Palisades nuclear power plant after five unexpected shutdowns in 2011.

The Palisades nuclear power plant in Michigan had five unplanned shutdowns last year. It's one of the area's biggest employers, and its safety record is one of the worst in the country. Now it's trying to prove to federal regulators that it can meet their standards.

On the shores of Lake Michigan, the Palisades Power Plant is tucked in between tall sand dunes in Covert Township, Mich., at the southern edge of Van Buren State Park.

Kathy Wagaman, who heads the chamber of commerce in South Haven, 7 miles north of Palisades, said she remembers spending summer days at the state park, playing football, swimming and sailing with no real concerns about the plant.

"Back in the '80s and early '90s — actually, up until 9/11 — we all used to swim in front of it because the water was warm," she said.

Wagaman said the nuclear plant is one of the largest employers in Van Buren County, with about 700 workers on any given day. In fact, the Palisades plant is the county's largest taxpayer.

"They've been a very good neighbor," she said, "and I just feel confident that they're taking good care of this."

The "this" Wagaman refers to is a series of safety problems at the plant last year. Palisades unexpectedly shut down five different times, and during four of those shutdowns, the nuclear reactor stopped.

Federal regulators say such unexpected shutdowns are not common. There are more than 100 nuclear power plants in the U.S., and the plant's owner, Entergy Nuclear, owns 10 others. Palisades is one of only four plants in the U.S. with such a bad safety rating.

That poor record scares Maynard Kaufman, who lives with his wife on a small farm 11 miles inland.

"If you just have one accident, and [even] if it were only one in a million, it is a cost that we don't want to have to bear," he said.

Kaufman feels so strongly about the risks of nuclear power that he rebuilt his home. It now relies entirely on wind and solar power. It's a good feeling, he said, to know that none of his energy comes from the Palisades plant.

'Were There Mistakes Made? Yes ...'

The plant's atmosphere has changed over the past few years; there's a renewed focus on safety. There are three security checkpoints before an employee can reach the control room. Once there, it's nearly silent — so that the five or six operators can concentrate.

"Everything is done by procedure," said Palisades spokesman Mark Savage. "There's nothing that we do here that says, 'Oh, I'm going to turn this knob.' It has to have a procedure by it."

But one night last September, a worker did not follow the procedure after getting permission from a supervisor. As a result, an electrical circuit shorted out, and the control room lost power to half its indicators. That incident was the most significant safety violation at Palisades last year.

"Were there mistakes made? Yes, there were," Savage said. "And those have been corrected."

No one was fired because of September's incident. Savage said the main cause of all the safety violations last year was human error, and that the plant is well on its way to fixing that particular issue.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission oversees the inspection teams at Palisades, and its threshold is low for mistakes at nuclear plants.

"Although I think there's concerns warranted — I'm concerned — I mean, we've concluded that the plant's operating safely," said Jack Geisner, who leads inspection teams through the Palisades plant.

Geisner's inspection teams will spend thousands of man-hours at the plant this year and beyond — however long it takes for Entergy to prove that the safety culture at Palisades is up to federal regulators' standards.

Copyright 2020 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit Michigan Radio.