© 2024 WEMU
Serving Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, MI
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Issues of the Environment: The debate over nuclear power in Michigan

Michigan Environmental Council President/CEO Conan Smith.
Dave Trumpie
Trumpie Photography
Michigan Environmental Council President/CEO Conan Smith.


  • In 2022, Holtec International acquired the 800-megawatt Palisades nuclear power plant. At that time, they planned to dismantle it because it had not remained cost-competitive relative to wind, solar, and natural gas. However, a changing of the tides on nuclear power under the Biden and Whitmer administrations reversed that course. Holtec was recently offered $1.5 billion dollars in federal and $150 million in state loans for the purpose of restarting the shuttered plant by late 2025. Restarting a closed nuclear plant has never been done in the United States before. 
  • According to energy.gov, “Holtec Palisades is the first project to be offered a conditional commitment through the Energy Infrastructure Reinvestment (EIR) program under Title 17 Clean Energy Financing Section 1706, first authorized and appropriated by President Biden's Inflation Reduction Act.” Holtec is seeking an additional $7.4 billion federal loan to build new, smaller reactors on the Palisades site and possibly other properties.
  • Always controversial, nuclear power is arguably the most heavily regulated industry on the planet because the radioactive material used to generate power remains dangerous for 10's to 100's of thousands of years. As of 2023, 41 nuclear reactors had been closed in the United States. The majority were closed because nuclear has proven over time to be unprofitable compared to other forms of energy production, and many of the closed plants relied on government subsidies to stay active. Decommissioning nuclear plants has leaned heavily on government subsidies too. 
  • Supporters of reopening the Palisades plant include some residents of Covert, Michigan who lost their jobs when it shut down. Michigan Gov. Whitmer and former Gov. Granholm praised the expansion of nuclear power in Michigan as a supercharged path toward fighting climate change via renewable energy and creating thousands of jobs. 
  • Nuclear power is considered renewable, but many environment and watchdog groups do not consider it to be good for the planet. Accidental discharges of nuclear waste create hazardous wastelands for millennia, and reactors are attractive targets for terrorists. A compelling argument against expanding nuclear power is the relative cost; with limited dollars available for the renewable transition solar, wind, and hydropower remain more cost-effective. 


David Fair: Michigan is in the process of working toward a new energy future, and much of the focus has been on solar and wind generation as renewable sources of energy. However, we may also see an increase in the generation and use of nuclear energy. I'm David Fair, and welcome to another edition of Issues of the Environment on 89 one WEMU. Back in March, the federal government offered $1.5 billion in loans to Holtec International, so that it can reopen the shuttered Palisades Nuclear Power Plant in West Michigan. The state is adding another $150 million in loans. It is historic in that a closed nuclear plant has never been reopened in the United States. This decision touches on a number of environmental issues, and our guest can help us gain a better understanding of the implications. Conan Smith is president and CEO of the Michigan Environmental Council. And it's nice to talk with you again, Conan.

Conan Smith: David, it's so great to be back with WEMU! Love you guys! And I love that you dig into issues like this.

David Fair: Well, perhaps I'm all alone in this, but I did find it striking to see the visual of Michigan's former governor and current U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and current Governor Gretchen Whitmer standing together in Covert, Michigan along the banks of Lake Michigan, happily making the announcement the Palisades Nuclear Power Plant would reopen. What went through your head as you saw that?

Conan Smith: You know, it was striking. Michigan has been such an important leader on climate and environment for the last several years, especially with the MI Healthy Climate Plan. And, of course, Governor Granholm's leadership, back when she was in office here, put us on a path around energy efficiency that really made Michigan a leader. So, when we see an investment like this going into a decommissioned plant on a pristine lake, it has to raise competing feelings, right? "Oh, we want this clean energy future! Oh, we're here to protect the environment!" Are these two things actually in sync? And, there's a lot of tension in the environmental community about what the right answer around Palisades in particular. And then, the long-term prospect of nuclear energy is part of our energy mix-in.

David Fair: Well, as we continue to work toward a better addressing the climate crisis, the good news about nuclear energy is that it is our single largest source of carbon-free electricity. As of last year, though, 41 nuclear power plants had closed in the United States because nuclear energy is not cost competitive with solar, wind and natural gas. Now, energy companies want to make money, and that's not going to change, is it?

Conan Smith: No. And I think it's the major challenge that we from the Environmental Council and our allies are looking in with Palisades. We operate in a region that shares energy across state borders. And we have the cheapest cost in the country for for bringing renewables online. That's an investment. From an economic standpoint, I'd much rather would have seen Michigan's $150 million and the federal government loan guarantees going towards massive expansion of renewable energy. That said, we have a problem in a manufacturing state where we need abundant, around-the-clock, reliable energy. And what timeline that's going to take to put battery storage online to power auto plants, manufacturing a plant, in the dark hours of the day, there is a real tension there. And so, nuclear provides us that climate friendlier--and I don't want to say climate friendly in and of itself--because it doesn't produce carbon emissions, but we still threaten the environment in a lot of ways with nuclear energy, from its waste to its water use.

David Fair: And I want to go further down that road.

Conan Smith: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Please.

David Fair: Issues of the Environment and our conversation with Michigan Environmental Council President and CEO Conan Smith continues on 89 one WEMU. I immediately thought of Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, the Chernobyl disaster, the crisis from the Fukushima nuclear facility in Japan. We'll be dealing with the repercussions of those failures for generations to come. And Palisades is right at Lake Michigan, Fermi-2 on the banks of Lake Erie, which is just about 40 miles from where I sit. For a layperson like me, it seems there is a very high risk and relatively low reward. Am I misreading that?

Conan Smith: Well, the risk of nuclear is actually very, very small. The technology is highly reliable. We do have signature disasters around the globe that leave that fear in the pit of your stomach. But the reality is nuclear reactors are running every day all over the world and even on submarines plying the ocean. And we don't see regular disasters. They're pretty safe. That's comforting. But depending on how they're constructed, they may use water. You see these things on lakeside, like you said, Michigan and Erie, because they need access to abundant water for cooling their cores. They produce waste that lasts for 100,000 years. And the United States does not have a central depository or a way to regularly store it.

David Fair: Right. So, those casks are right along the shorelines of our lakes.

Conan Smith: Exactly. And that imperils, what we think of in Michigan, as our greatest and most iconic resource and what the globe should think of as its long-term resource--20% of the world's freshwater in these Great Lakes. So, we got to be really, really thoughtful about whether these kinds of investments bear fruit long-term, or whether they are the transitional investment we need. That's why I'm more of a fan of maintaining the nuclear energy systems that we have currently, because then we can use them to transition into a pure renewable energy marketplace. Bringing new nuclear online for cost reasons, for risk reasons, and for the long-term prospect reasons, I'm not a fan.

David Fair: Palisades was closed in 2022, and the plan for the moment is to get it operational again sometime in 2025. Fermi-2 in Monroe County continues operations and its owner, DTE Energy, if I'm not mistaken, does have an active permit to begin work on Fermi-3, but there's been no movement in that direction. So, as we look at the nation's energy portfolio and as we look to move much closer to the source of renewable energies we'll need, is it going to take a political will to make an investment in all forms of these carbon-free energies to get us where we need to be in time to avert further climate crisis?

Conan Smith: It definitely is. But there are also market forces at play. So, there are 40 countries right now around the globe who get more than 50% of their energy from renewable sources. So, we know that this is feasible. Several of them are 99 to 100% renewable source right now. So, you can run a country off of renewable energy. It is a question of the speed of ramp-up. And so, that is an investment challenge at the governance challenge. To some extent, the public will challenge. Right now, we're facing in Michigan the prospect of having to fight acres and acres of solar in order to meet our goal. And there's going to be some pushback at the local level in some communities. So, yeah, we definitely need the political will. But the economics behind this are really good. And that's what's driving the change more than environmental advocacy, frankly, more than public will. It's the fact that this makes financial sense for companies to move into renewable.

David Fair: Holtec, again, getting a $1.5 billion federal loan to start the process of reopening Palisades. I did not mention that Holtec is also seeking an additional $7.4 billion federal loan to build new and smaller reactors on the Palisades site and elsewhere. That would put the federal investment in this one area at almost $9 billion. So, if we look at that figure, might you be able to paint a word picture of what $9 billion would buy if we were to apply it exclusively to renewable sources of energy?

Conan Smith: Sure. When we compare energy sources, like nuclear to wind or to coal, we talk about what's called the "levelized cost of energy." And the levelized cost takes into account all of the factors that would go into providing those electrons over the life of the generating facility. For nuclear, that's three times as much as solar. So, if you're talking about a $9 billion investment in nuclear, you could get the equivalent for $3 billion, or you could get $27 billion worth of energy from renewable sources for that same kind of investment. Does that make sense?

David Fair: Yes. And how can we not sell that?

Conan Smith: Yeah. And that's the big question in our minds. Like, why invest in this facility at this time when we have such opportunity to transform the mix of energy and Michigan to be--and a mandate now from the Legislature and the governor--to move to 100% clean energy and 60% renewable energy. Long way to go there. Billions of dollars investment in that would accelerate the transition dramatically.

David Fair: Best guess, Conan Smith. Can we possibly meet the ambitious goals as set forth by the City of Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County and the state of Michigan?

Conan Smith: I'm 100% sure that we can. And I don't think that we need new nuclear power as part of that equation, frankly. So, if you think about where Michigan is today, we're still using coal for a not insubstantial part of our energy generation. So, as we shut down the last coal plants in Michigan and replacing that with renewables. And building DTE is doing a really interesting project where they're converting a former coal plant site to energy battery storage. And so, that is a vision for the future of our energy economy. That's the kind of thing we should be spending more of our time, energy and money on. We will meet the goal. I don't have any doubt about that. I trust in the legislative mandate. I trust in the corporate vision there. I trust in the people of Michigan to hold everyone accountable to that goal. But we could--and frankly, we need--to be doing it much faster if we're going to save the planet as a whole from these ravages of climate change that we're experiencing.

David Fair: Well, as we look to the future, I will look forward to more conversations with you. But thank you for the time and perspective today, Conan. I appreciate it!

Conan Smith: David, it's always a pleasure to talk with you, and I love Issues of the Environment! Thank you for keeping this program going!

David Fair: That is Conan Smith. He's the president and CEO of the Michigan Environmental Council. He's been our guest on Issues of the Environment. It's a weekly feature produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. You hear it every Wednesday. For more information on our discussion, just pay a visit to our website at wemu.org when it's convenient for you. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.

Non-commercial, fact based reporting is made possible by your financial support. Make your donation to WEMU today to keep your community NPR station thriving.

Like 89.1 WEMU on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Contact WEMU News at 734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
Related Content