This year federal regulators will keep a close eye on the Palisades Nuclear Power Plant. The plant had three safety violations last year; that makes it one of only four nuclear plants in the nation with such a bad safety rating.
About 700 people work at Palisades every day. It’s one of (if not) the largest employers in Van Buren County. The plant is the county’s largest taxpayer. Those tax dollars go to a number of public schools, libraries, a hospital and local governments.
People who live by the plant near South Haven (Covert Township) are still trying to figure out what the safety violations mean to them. It’s making others, like Barbara Geisler and her husband Maynard Kauffman, uncomfortable.
Living near a nuclear power plant
Geisler and Kauffman’s 22 acre farm has rich black soil that’s grown most anything. "I feel very nice about this place because it’s prime farmland," Kauffman said. Now the retired couple sticks to hay, grapes and other fruits and veggies for themselves. The farm is about 11 miles east of the Palisades plant.
Kauffman says he didn’t think too much about the plant when he bought his farm back in 1973 (160 some acres back then). That was two years after the plant opened. But Barbara Geisler says over the years, they starting paying more attention to Palisades. “We went to hearings and did what we could to question the plant,” Geisler said, recalling a group of citizens called ‘Palisades watch’ that kept up on the news and meetings with regulators.
By 2005, when plant operators began asking regulators to renew their operating license, Kauffman and Geisler were on site at the plant protesting the renewal.
“We were with a lot of people carrying signs ‘shut it down, shut it down,” Kauffman said, “It was after that that we decided when we built our house not to use nuclear energy for electricity.
Instead, the farm is powered by two small scale wind turbines and a solar panel. The 1,800 square foot home is heated with a super efficient stove with ceramic tiles inside. It and sunlight from the windows heat their hot water.
Kauffman says it gives him a good feeling knowing none of their energy is coming from coal, natural gas or the Palisades plant. But the two still have a bad feeling about Palisades. They’re worried about the steel vessel that contains the actual nuclear reactor. That vessel is the oldest in the country.
“If you just have one accident, and if it were only one in a million, it is a cost that we don’t want to have to bear,” Kauffman said.
The company that operates the plant, Entergy, will need to update the steel vessel or prove that it can withstand further use in order to keep operating past 2017.
Safety violations in 2011 "uncommon"
But that vessel issue is separate from the safety violations the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued Palisades last year. In all the plant had four unplanned reactor shutdowns, resulting in “significant safety violations.”
“We’re there mistakes made? Yes there were and those have been corrected,” acknowledged Mark Savage, a Palisades communications manager. “But did they operate safely at all times? Yes they did. Was there any consequences involved that would’ve harmed equipment or harmed people? No there were not,” Savage said.
At the NRC’s annual assessment meeting in South Haven Wednesday night, another Entergy official said safety is already improving at the plant. He says human errors, the main cause of the safety violations issued last year, have declined.
But the NRC’s Acting Regional Administrator Cindy Peterson says the company will still be under close surveillance this year.
“Quite frankly we won’t be satisfied until your performance improves,” Peterson said.
The NRC says the safety problems at Palisades are uncommon, but not enough to warrant a shut-down. They too insist the plant is operating safely, and if it weren’t the agency would and could shut it down.
NRC inspectors will spend thousands of man-hours at the plant this year and beyond, until Entergy can prove the safety culture at Palisades is up to federal regulators' standards.