Northern Michigan's Nuclear Risk
What's worse: the nuclear waste stored at Charlevoix's shoreline, or excavating and moving it?
By Patrick Sullivan | Nov. 24, 2018
In 1997, Charlevoix’s Big Rock Point Nuclear Power Plant was rechristened Big Rock Point Restoration Project, and a massive decommissioning project began.
Soon, little was left of the historic nuclear plant, and spent nuclear fuel was put into temporary on-site storage to await a time when it could be shipped to a permanent nuclear waste storage facility, then in development.
Plans for permanent storage fell through, however, and today, eight canisters of nuclear waste remain at the Big Rock site, stored under tight, 24-hour security. Just about everyone would like to see the dangerous spent fuel shipped away; most people agree that the Lake Michigan shore is a bad place to house nuclear waste.
But now that plans are underway to potentially move the waste to long-term “interim” (i.e., 100 to 300 years) storageat a site under development in New Mexico, some environmental groups are alarmed. Theydon’t trust the company involved, and they’ve taken legal action. They want a public hearing and more oversight, arguing that if the transportation of the waste is not handled properly, the consequences could be disastrous.
MORE OVERSIGHT WANTED
Consumers Energy developed and operated Big Rock for 35 years. After it was decommissioned, a company called Entergy purchased the plant in 2007. Earlier this year, Entergy sold Big Rock, along with a slate of other nuclear properties that included Palisades Power Plant, near South Haven, to Holtec International.
Victor McManemy, a long-time anti-nuclear activist from Traverse City, is worried what this new development means.
“It’s hard keeping up, because they’re playing the shell game,” McManemy said.
Holtec is attempting to win approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to develop a spent nuclear fuel interim storage facility in New Mexico, and it appears the company plans to move the nuclear waste from the properties it’s purchased to the New Mexico facility.
Long before decommissioning began at Big Rock in 1997, the federal government had pledged to create a permanent storage facility for nuclear waste, eventually settling on a location in Yucca Mountain, Nevada. After years of controversy, however, that plan was abandoned. Holtec apparently saw an opportunity — they want the U.S. Department of Energy to take title for the nuclear waste it holds, which is stored at plants throughout the country, and pay Holtec to house that waste at a facility designed to hold it on the interim basis of 100 to 300 years.
McManemy is worried that too much is happening behind the scenes and that the likelihood of something going wrong is too great.
“They’ve got no place to offload this spent fuel, and so they’re desperate — they came up with this idea,” said McManemy, who wrote and recorded a folk song in protest of Big Rock nuclear plant in the 1980s.
Because Big Rock has already been decommissioned, McManemy believes Holtec will seek to clear the waste from that property before many others.
Big Rock is “going to be one of the first places they’re going to want to move it from,” McManemy said. “We don’t know if they are safe for transport. We need public hearings with expert witnesses.”
“A CONSTANT DANGER”
Charlevoix resident and long-time environmental activist JoAnne Beemon has been following Big Rock for years. She said she fears that every time Big Rock is sold, its ownership grows more distant and becomes less accountable to local residents.
“Every time they sell that plant, it becomes one step further away from responsibility,” she said.
Beemon said the dilemma at Big Rock — that people are concerned both about the nuclear waste that’s stored there and about the plans to haul it away — proves why nuclear power is a bad idea. While it is, in a sense, clean energy, its production saddles future generations with dangerous, unstable waste.
“What this is, is, it’s the last death gasp of a concentrated, controlled energy industry that’s willing to sacrifice the people of the United States for profit,” Beemon said. “They’re trying to convince people, ‘Well, we were promised, and we’re left here with all this nuclear waste.’ They’re trying to profit from it.”
Beemon finds herself in a quandary. She doesn’t want the nuclear waste stored at Big Rock.
“That waste should not be on the shores of Lake Michigan,” Beemon said. “It’s a constant danger.”
But she’s also joined a lawsuit that seeks to prevent the waste from being moved to a storage facility in New Mexico.
Beemon is named as a plaintiff in an action filed, in part, by Don't Waste Michigan, a nonprofit anti-nuclear activist group.
Don’t Waste is seeking to gain standing before the Atomic Regulatory Commission in an action opposing Holtec’s permit application because some of its members live near routes where the nuclear waste would likely be trucked on the way from Big Rock to New Mexico via “heavy haul-trucking route” and rail.
Beemon, for example, lives less than two miles from Big Rock, and she frequently travels on US-31 between Charlevoix and Petoskey, a likely leg of the route when the waste containers are removed, according to the lawsuit.
“WE’RE SAYING: SLOW DOWN”
There are eight canisters stored at Big Rock today that each hold spent nuclear fuel, and they weigh as much as 125 tons each, said Michael Keegan, a Monroe resident and Don’t Waste Michigan board co-chair. Seven of containers hold spent fuel rods and the eighth holds high-level nuclear waste.
According to the suit, spent nuclear fuel “is inherently very deadly radiotoxic material, and each transport cask will contain considerably more radioactivity (200 times or more) than was dispersed by the Hiroshima nuclear bomb.”
Getting that kind of load from northern Michigan to New Mexico will be complicated. A crash or as fire or an act of terrorism during the transport could spark a nuclear disaster.
“What complicates this is that all of the plans Holtec has to provide have never been tested or scrutinized,” Keegan said. “Holtec owns every step of this process, controls every step of this process. It’s not been scrutinized, and the NRC is just rubber stamping one of these after another.”
There’s another company, a competitor of Holtec, that’s trying to open a waste disposal site in west Texas. That’s left the grassroots opponents of what’s happening on their toes, because they have to file objections to each plan that comes along.
Keegan said a coalition of environmental groups first filed challenges with the NRC’s Atomic Safety Licensing division, which is the administrative law arm of the NRC. They’ve got to exhaust all of their options there, and once they do, if the project continues to move forward, they plan to file a federal lawsuit.
Their first objective, Keegan said, is to get the NRC to hold a public hearing on the plans so that the opponents can go on the record with their concerns.
“We’ve made formal appeals through petitions with contentions; several groups across the U.S. are looking to intervene to force public hearing,” he said. “At the end of the day, we may not get what we want, which is to stop this project.”
If the New Mexico project gets approved as it is on track to get approved, Keegan said it could start accepting nuclear waste in 2020.
Holtec has not hinted what route it would use from Charlevoix — and details will be kept secret for security reasons — but the Department of Energy studied how to move the waste from Charlevoix in 2002 and considered a route on US-31 through Petoskey, to I-75, and then to Grayling to be transferred to rail.
Keegan said he understands that some details need to be kept secret for security reasons, but he argues that the company’s plans to ensure the safety of Michigan residents need to be scrutinized. Holtec has kept them under wraps on the basis that it is proprietary business information.
“The public is kept in the dark on purpose,” Keegan said. “What we’re trying to do is get public hearings. In the process, it’s not being scrutinized to the extent that it needs to be, they could potentially create a disaster right there on the spot. … They are about to engage in a very dangerous transfer, and what we’re saying is, ‘Slow down.’”
In an emailed statement, a Holtec representative said the company takes safety seriously: “The transportation of spent nuclear fuel is conducted under strict governance by federal regulatory agencies and guidance from individual states. Long before the transfer of fuel, a key part of our planning involves engagement with community leaders and the public to ensure an open means of communication.
“NOT TO BE TRIFLED WITH”
In the meantime, Keegan said the waste should be moved to higher ground and to a more fortified, safer location away from Lake Michigan, though he’s not sure where.
“No, we don’t want the waste there at Big Rock,” Keegan said.
McManemy echoed that but acknowledged that proposing a storage site elsewhere in northern Michigan would be bound to cause bitter controversy. He said that he believes that, as a stopgap, storage at Big Rock should be fortified in order to further reduce the likelihood of a natural disaster or an act of terrorism causing a nuclear disaster.
“We want it moved off the shore, or, at least, in hardened on-site storage,” he said.
Keegan, as a child, happened to attend a carnival in Charlevoix in 1962 staged to celebrate the opening of Big Rock. As an activist in 1997, he attended the celebration marking the plant’s closure.
He said he believes that the companies involved in the nuclear industry are too tempted to cut corners at the expense of safety and that the government regulators who oversee them don’t hold them accountable.
“There’s just a total lack of regulation and oversight,” Keegan said. “The process is corrupt and it’s fatal.”
He said what’s stored north of Charlevoix could pose catastrophic harm if something goes wrong.
“Each cannisterhas the equivalent of a Chernobyl impact,” he said. “It’s not something to be trifled with.”
Photo note: The photo at top, taken in the '90s, shows the former plant.