By Yvonne Zipp
October 22, 2013

KALAMAZOO, MI – Palisades Nuclear Power Plant isn’t going anywhere, said a former head of the Environmental Protection Agency Tuesday.

While Entergy Corp., which owns Palisades, announced it was shutting down its Vermont Yankee Reactor earlier this year, former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who headed the EPA under President George W. Bush, said she believes the Covert Township reactor will remain open for business.

“They have committed to this one,” said Whitman on a visit to the Kalamazoo Gazette. “This one I think is going to keep going without a problem.”

Earlier this year, a study by Vermont Law School’s Institute for Energy and the Environment named Palisades one of the 12 reactors in the U.S. at the highest risk of being shut down before their licenses expire. There were six risk factors cited, including age, cost, multiple safety risks and opposition by local residents.

Whitman said that the level of local opposition facing the Vermont reactor – which included the state government – was an order of magnitude higher than that facing Palisades.

“They’re serious about keeping (Palisades),” said Whitman, about Entergy.

Whitman, who was scheduled to speak Wednesday at Western Michigan University as part of its Sustainability Day, is the head of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, which has about 3,300 members and supports the expansion of nuclear power in the U.S. But Whitman said they back expansion of renewable energy sources.

“We’re an ‘all-of-the-above’ type organization,” said Whitman of CASEnergy Coalition.

At this point, Whitman said, nuclear power largely enjoys bipartisan support in the U.S.

“There’s more support today than there has been in a while, overall,” said Whitman, citing studies that found that more than 50 percent of Americans believe that nuclear energy has a role to play in the nation’s power supply.

While environmentalists have expressed concern about having an aging reactor on the shores of Lake Michigan, air pollution from fossil fuels pose a far greater threat to the health of the Great Lakes than Palisades, Whitman said.

“You get more problems in Lake Michigan from coal-fired emissions and natural gas,” she said.

Whitman also pointed out that in 2012, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission moved Palisades, which had been downgraded to Column 3 after a series of safety issues, back up to Column 1 of the highest-performing reactors. The NRC also mandated an additional 1,000 hours of inspections to ensure the reactor was operating properly.

Since 2011, the reactor has been plagued by a series of shutdowns, including a month-long one in May to replace the bottom of a leaking safety injection/refueling water tank after about 80 gallons of highly diluted radioactive water ended up in Lake Michigan. The incident did not represent a health or safety risk to the public, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said.

“The good news is you’ve got the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which regulates the industry to a degree you don’t see anywhere in the world,” said Whitman. “They are on top of things.”

Of critics’ concerns that the NRC doesn’t have enough authority to mete out punishments, Whitman said that the ability to force a power plant to remain offline until a problem has been corrected is a powerful enforcement tool.

“That is a very direct financial hit to the company,” she said.

Sustainable standards for fracking?

Whitman also is a part of the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, which she said is working to develop a set of voluntary standards for horizontal hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking.”

“We need to say we’re not just going to go for shale gas, we’re going to try to come up with standards that go toward being sustainable,” Whitman said. “In the best of all possible worlds, I wish we didn’t do it. But we’re going to, so let’s make it as safe as we can.”

Allied Paper site

Of the former Allied Paper site in Kalamazoo, Whitman said that such Superfund sites are common in lower-income neighborhoods in cities around the U.S, calling it an “environmental justice” issue.

“They didn’t have the voices, the political clout, when the sites were being made,” said Whitman, whose home state of New Jersey has the greatest number of Superfund sites in the country. “You will often find them located near low-income communities.”

Whitman did not speak to the specifics of the EPA’s proposal to cap the 80-acre site, rather than remove the PCB-contaminated soil, but said it should be possible to clean it up enough for some forms of future development.

“It just gets much more expensive,” she said.

Bike trails, for example, or parks, would have lower health risks than homes.

“It’s a very different level of clean-up if you’re going to have parks than if you’re going to have houses and schools,” she said.

The need for a national energy policy

Whitman said she found President Obama to be lacking in leadership when it comes to U.S. energy.

“He’s talked a lot about it. I haven’t seen much in the way of leadership on the issue. When he does talk about it, he talks in a way that makes sense to me,” said Whitman. “He certainly has not made it a priority. I understand he has other things on his plate.”

Whitman said she would like to see the U.S. develop an official national energy policy, one that made a clear commitment to clean energy while allowing the market to pick the winners instead of mandating for example, that a certain percentage of fuel be corn-based ethanol.

“We need an energy policy, and that should be a Republican thing. That’s business. I’d like to see one that really emphasizes: We want clean, sustainable, affordable energy,” said Whitman. “Make a clear statement: This is important to us as a country.”