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PHOTOS: Tour the Palisades Nuclear Power Plant

The Palisades Nuclear Power Plant, located on the shores of Lake Michigan, now has one of the worst safety ratings in the country. That’s after the plant had five unplanned shutdowns last year.

This year federal regulators are keeping an even closer eye on the plant. It’s tucked in between tall sand dunes at the southern edge of Van Buren State Park in Covert Township.

Palisades "extremely important" to area economy

Kathy Wagaman remembers spending a ton of time on the beach at the state park; playing football, swimming and sailing with no real regard for the nuclear plant.

“Back in the 80s and early 90s actually up until (September 11th, 2001) we all used to swim in front of it because the water was warm,” Wagaman said with a chuckle. Now, Wagaman is the Executive Director of the South Haven Area Chamber of Commerce. South Haven is a small tourist city seven miles north of Palisades.

Wagaman says the nuclear plant is one of the largest employers in Van Buren County. There are a handful of other manufacturers in town, but nothing compared to Palisades; about 700 people work at the plant every day. Every 18 months or so, the plant has to shutdown to refuel and that brings another 1,000 workers from out of town to the plant for several weeks.  It is the county’s largest taxpayer.

"Not common" safety issues in 2011

“They’ve been a very good neighbor and I just feel confident that they’re taking good care of this,” Wagaman said. This – is series of safety problems at the plant last year. The nuclear reactor at Palisades stopped four out of the five times the plant shutdown unexpectedly. Entergy Nuclear Operations owns Palisades and ten other nuclear plants in the United States.

Federal regulators say the unexpected shutdowns at Palisades are “not common”. There are just over a-hundred nuclear power plants in the U.S. Palisades is one of only four with such a bad safety rating.

That alarms Maynard Kaufman, who lives with his wife on a small farm in Bangor, 11 miles east from the plant.

“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,” Kaufman said. They feel so strongly they rebuilt their home so that it relies on wind and solar power. It gives him a good feeling knowing none of his energy is coming from the Palisades plant.

Improving safety culture, reducing human errors

After three security check points Palisades spokesman Mark Savage takes me into the plant’s control room. It’s quiet, so the 5 or 6 operators can concentrate.

“Everything is done by procedure. 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,” Savage said.

But one night last September a worker did not follow procedures. In fact, the worker got permission from a supervisor to do so. During the work an electrical circuit shorted out and the control room lost half its indicators. That was the most significant safety violation at Palisades last year.

“We’re there mistakes made? Yes there were. And those have been corrected,” Savage said. 

No one was fired because of the incident. Savage says the main cause of all the safety violations last year, human error, has already declined this year.

Jack Geisner is with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He oversees the inspection teams at Palisades. Geisner points out the NRC has a really low threshold 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,” Geisner said.

Geisner says his inspection teams 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 regulator’s standards.

Lindsey Smith helps lead the station'sAmplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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