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Wednesday, April 24, 2024
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Palisades: maybe living to fight (carbon and unemployment) another day, and other encouraging nuclear developments in high politics

Eight hundred megawatts of clean 24/7 power, located on the southeast shore of Lake Michigan a forty-five minute drive due west of Kalamazoo, exited the Michigan grid in May 2022. This was the Palisades Nuclear power plant, owned and operated to that point by Entergy, a US utility that primarily operates nuclear plants in non-regulated grids in the US. Palisades had an operating license from the US regulator that would have allowed it to run to 2031. Its premature exit was due to its owner Entery having no confidence in the prospect of obtaining a power purchase agreement from its main buyer that would have allowed Entergy to run the plant profitably.

Entergy also owned and operated Vermont Yankee, which was in 2018 forced off the grid by hostile politicians, and Indian Point, in 2021 forced off the New York grid, also by hostile politicians. You notice the pattern. Entergy had met with little but hostility in the northern US states where it operated. Its ability to point to massive carbon emissions avoidance from having operated zero-emitting nuclear plants, and gainfully employing thousands of tax paying citizens, mattered nothing at all in its attempts to convince northeastern politicians to rethink their ideological opposition to the way it makes electricity.

But the political situation is, or has become, markedly different in Michigan. The governor, Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, was on record prior to shutdown that she was supportive of keeping Palisades running, asking the federal government for financial help. In September 2022, she again unsuccessfully petitioned the US federal government for clean energy credits. That support would have helped the plant’s new owner, Holtec International, which acquired the plant in June 2022, to reverse its original plan to decommission it and actually resume commercial electricity generation.

Note the latter date. Twenty-twenty-two was an election year in the US, and Governor Whitmer was running for re-election. In September—less than two months to the polls—a gubernatorial candidate publicly supported restarting a shut-down nuclear plant. In early November Whitmer easily won re-election. Even prior to the 2022 midterms her name often came up in discussions among political pundits, including the famous Hacks on Tap, about future Democratic candidates for president.

Arlo Guthrie’s famous antiwar satire Alice’s Restaurant is a hilarious shaggy dog story about the misadventure that ensued after Guthrie illegally dumped garbage in western Massachusetts and was arrested and convicted of littering, which made him ineligible for the military draft that could have sent him to fight in Vietnam. During the song, Guthrie suggests that one small-yet-significant action can start a civil society movement that leads to positive change. Nuclear plants produce so little “garbage” there is never any danger of having to dump it in the commons, surreptitiously or otherwise. One, two, three prominent politicians publicly supporting nuclear could start a movement that keeps nuclear plants online, and gets new ones built.

When a Democrat governor easily wins re-election while publicly supporting restarting a nuclear plant, a welcome change may be afoot in US politics. Democrats have historically been very cool, if not overtly hostile, toward nuclear power. So have most centre-progressive political parties in Canada.

Does Whitmer’s new position on Palisades signal anything significant? Perhaps it does. Taken together with:

  1. Diablo Canyon in California, where another Democrat governor—whose name also comes up as a viable future presidential candidate—has reversed his long-standing opposition to that plant’s closure, and
  2. US Democratic President Joe Biden’s recent classification of nuclear as clean energy eligible for federal credits, and
  3. Canada’s overtly nuclear-friendly federal (Liberal) budget last week…

… friends, they may think it’s a movement.

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