Leaks fixed at Palisades plant, but public trust isn't fully repaired

Jul 18, 2013

Public health should be about facts, but let’s face it -- it’s often also about perception and emotion.

The Palisades plant is located not too far from where I live in West Michigan -– but before I go there, allow me a quick digression.

I recently gave up diet soda.

I’m trying to be healthy and have been convinced by what I’ve read and been told that aspartame, the sweetener in diet pop, is really not a good thing to consume.

Is the evidence conclusive?

I don’t think so, but I certainly feel a whole lot better about myself now that I’ve kicked my addiction.

The emotional factors may not be so different with the Palisades nuclear power plant.

First - the facts:

The plant was shut down in May after a small leak was discovered.

Turned out it came from a weak weld in a water tank needed for emergencies should the reactor need cooling.

The opening in the weld was small – about 1/8th of an inch long and as wide as just a couple of pieces of hair.

The estimate is 80 gallons of water containing some radioactivity made its way into Lake Michigan, but the amount was really small -- according to the NRC, 50,000 times less than the federal limit.

They also say the tank’s not leaking - drinking water is safe – and there is and was no danger to the public.

But I took part in a webinar this week to hear the NRC respond to exhaustive questions and I think it’s fair to say the public remains uneasy– and so am I.

First, let me just say that NRC regulators come off as exceptionally well informed and convey a lot of information.

But it’s hard for them to give any specific fact that can change a rough record.

The Palisades plant and Entergy, the company that owns it, have had bad report cards for three years.

10 shutdowns since 2011.

Last year, the plant was downgraded as one of poorest performing of the 104 reactors in the country, though that rating was lifted after some improvements.

There have been repeated leaks and repeated calls for doing more to stop them.

Now, logic would dictate that the small amount of radiation released in this last leak wouldn’t light up a perch in Lake Michigan, but how can anyone expect Michigan residents to be reassured after a record that’s been so dismal for so long?

There is, in a word, mistrust.

If that plant is to going to win the confidence of the public it serves, there is going to have to be investment and a proven display of consistent performance.

In other words -  no leaks.

Because at the end of the day, this is a nuclear power plant – and my emotions tell me that if I had to choose between one bad thing or another, I’d go get myself a Diet Coke.