How to reopen a nuclear power plant

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A shut-down nuclear power plant in Michigan could get a second life thanks to a $1.52 billion loan from the US Department of Energy. If successful, it will be the first time a shuttered nuclear power plant reopens in the US.  

Palisades Power Plant shut down on May 20, 2022, after 50 years of generating low-carbon electricity. But the plant’s new owner thinks economic conditions have improved in the past few years and plans to reopen by the end of 2025.

A successful restart would be a major milestone for the US nuclear fleet, and the reactor’s 800 megawatts of capacity could help inch the country closer to climate goals. But reopening isn’t as simple as flipping on a light switch—there are technical, administrative, and regulatory hurdles ahead before Palisades can start operating again. Here’s what it takes to reopen a nuclear power plant.

Step 1: Stay ready

One of the major reasons Palisades has any shot of restarting is that the site’s new owner has been planning on this for years. “Technically, the stars had all aligned for the plant to stay operating,” says Patrick White, research director at the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, a nonprofit think tank.

Holtec International supplies equipment for nuclear reactors and waste and provides services like decommissioning nuclear plants. Holtec originally purchased Palisades with the intention of shutting it down, taking apart the facilities, and cleaning up the site. The company has decommissioned other recently shuttered nuclear plants, including Indian Point Energy Center in New York. 

Changing economic conditions have made continued operation too expensive to justify for many nuclear power plants, especially smaller ones. Those with a single, relatively small reactor, like Palisades, have been the most vulnerable.  

Once a nuclear power plant shuts down, it can quickly become difficult to start it back up. As with a car left out in the yard, White says, “you expect some degradation.” Maintenance and testing of critical support systems might slow down or stop. Backup diesel generators, for example, would need to be checked and tested regularly while a reactor is online, but they likely wouldn’t be treated the same way after a plant’s shutdown, White says.

Holtec took possessio...

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