Policy Tracker: Michigan raises the nuclear question


Dear Michigan Climate News readers,

We asked you what topics we should cover in this newsletter, and we got a resounding response — you want to stay up-to-date on climate solutions, politics, and policy. To that end, in addition to regular solutions-based stories, we will be bringing you this monthly policy tracker.

Our aim is to help keep you up-to-date on the latest state and federal government policies that impact climate and the environment in Michigan.

Please let us know if we're hitting the mark.

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– Nina at Planet Detroit

On to the policy update:


Last month, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer asked the Biden administration to save west Michigan’s Palisades nuclear power plant, slated to close by May. The state’s new climate plan aims to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, with an interim goal of reducing emissions by 52% from 2005 levels by 2030. Keeping the plant open could help Michigan meet these goals, and the White House has made clear it’s open to keeping nuclear plants open as a part of the broader climate fight because they produce no direct carbon emissions.

But Michigan lawmakers may be trying to do more the save existing nuclear plants. House Bill 6019 would commission a feasibility study on nuclear power in the state, including new facilities and even small modular reactors, prefabricated nuclear power units with a smaller electrical outlet than a typical plant.

Republican State Rep. David Martin of Davidson expressed support for the study, saying that technological advances could allow for smaller reactors similar to those used in naval submarines and aircraft carriers.

“We cannot rely solely on renewable energy sources like wind and solar,” he said. “As more and more of our coal power plants shut down, it makes sense to explore nuclear energy options that are safe, reliable, and emission-free to help maintain our baseline generation levels.” He also argued that Russia’s assault on Ukraine underlines the need for U.S. energy independence.

Yet, Ukraine is a prime example of the perils of nuclear energy. The Chernobyl disaster that occurred in northern Ukraine in 1986 likely led to thousands of fatalities and contaminated around 58,000 square miles, an area roughly the size of the state of Georgia. The recent conflict reignited radiation concerns when Russians occupied the Chernobyl site and shelled the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine.

Charlotte Jameson, chief policy officer for the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC), said keeping Palisades online could allow the state to build out more renewable energy. But she added that MEC was wary of new nuclear facilities. The Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club says on its website that the group “remains unequivocally opposed to nuclear energy,” arguing that wind, solar and other technologies are cheaper ways to produce renewable energy and that nuclear is a “uniquely dangerous energy technology for humanity.”

Advocates for small nuclear reactors argue that they’re safer than older technologies. But problems were found with at least one model of the largely untried reactors, and some say that dispersing them across the landscape could increase the chances of an accident or make them easy targets for terrorists.

Still, with the climate crisis increasing in intensity, the debate over the role of nuclear power in reducing emissions is likely to continue. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm recently said that the Biden administration wants to achieve zero-carbon electricity and "that means nuclear, that means hydropower, that means geothermal, that means obviously wind on and offshore, that means solar." And Rep. Martin’s comments suggest that his goal for pushing the proposed study isn’t to provide Michiganders with information on nuclear power and keeping old plants online but to get new reactors built.

More Michigan state policy updates:

Underground storage: A bill to add restrictions on underground storage tanks, SB 991, has been working its way through the Senate. The bill would bar the placement of tanks within a certain distance of water wells or require a variance from the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA). The most stringent guidelines will be for tanks near “type I” community water wells, which supply water year-round for 25 people or 15 housing units.

Guidance: Three house bills, HB 5358, HB 5359, and HB 5360, would require commercial hunting and fishing guides to meet minimum safety standards, provide data on species harvested to the Department of Natural Resources and require a $150 three-year registration fee for Michigan residents. The Michigan United Conservation Clubs is backing the bills, citing the need for basic provisions to protect clients and provide valuable data to biologists and conservation officers.

Things with a paddle for $10: We hope you’re sitting down because HB 5961 could be a game-changer for commercial canoe and kayak registration. With the new bill, non-motorized craft less than 18 feet long would be subject to a one-time, $10 registration fee. Currently, the fee is $5 and has to be renewed every three years.

At the Michigan Public Service Commission

A win for renewables: A Consumers Energy settlement with Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office and stakeholder groups would see the utility end coal use in three years and build almost 8,000 megawatts of solar power by 2040. The Michigan Environmental Council praised the settlement and urged the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) to approve it. As a result, the MPSC has extended the deadline for the Consumers Integrated Resource Plan, the utility’s long-term framework for providing power to residents and businesses. (MLive)

Muck: The MPSC approved a deal for Consumers to buy power from the troubled Morrow Dam in Kalamazoo, compromising aquatic life in the Kalamazoo River by sending large amounts of sediment downstream. The state is suing the dam operator, Eagle Creek Renewable Energy, for the sediment problem that resulted in PCB contamination in the river. (MLive)

Rooftop solar: Michigan State Sen. Jeff Irwin and other lawmakers are lobbying the MPSC to reject DTE Energy’s proposal to halve the credits customers with rooftop solar receive when they put energy back on the grid. Meanwhile, HB 4236, which would eliminate the 1% cap on rooftop solar that utilities are required to give credits for, remains stalled.

Federal policy updates:

Environmental/Justice: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its much anticipated environmental justice plan, which would establish an Office of Environmental Justice within the agency. The Department of Justice (DOJ) will increase environmental investigations in underserved communities as part of the plan. The DOJ will also bring back the practice of using money from settlements with polluters to fund environmental projects in communities. This practice was discontinued during the Trump administration. (E&E)

New hire: The Biden administration appointed Detroit native Jalonne White-Newsome to be the senior director for environmental justice on the White House’s Council for Environmental Quality. As an academic, White-Newsome did research work on extreme heat and she has consulted with companies to help them lessen their environmental impacts. (E&E)

More drilling: While the Biden administration pitches environmental justice, it’s also opening up new oil and gas leases on federal land. The administration says a 2021 ruling by a federal judge in Louisiana took away its ability to pause drilling. Some believe the president is responding to rising gas prices, even though the new drilling isn’t likely to impact supply for a year. (Grist)


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