It took just 10 minutes on May 20 for Palisades operations control personnel to shut down the reactor that has kept the nuclear power plant running for the past 50 years.
Those 10 minutes turned out to be a bittersweet moment for the factory workers.
For Jim Byrd, a South Haven resident and director of personnel operations at Palisades, the years of training he went through made the shutdown operation almost like clockwork.
“We have been trained to stay calm and collected whenever there is a reactor shutdown,” he said.
But the May 20 closing was different. It wasn’t for a maintenance breakdown or for safety repairs. This turned out to be the final stop.
“The emotions happened after the job ended,” Byrd said, regarding how he felt when his shift ended on May 20. “We didn’t have time to dwell on it during the shutdown. We stayed calm, cool and collected and did our job.
But now Byrd and the other Palisades employees will have to look to their future.
The future of Palisades employees
Of the approximately 550 current Palisades employees, 130 plan to move to other jobs offered at power plants and generating facilities owned by Entergy Corp., Palisades’ parent company, according to company officials. Another 260 employees plan to stay for several years with Holtec International, which will take over the decommissioning of the Palisades plant, while the other 180 Palisades employees will choose other jobs, more than half of which will be eligible for retirement.
Byrd, who is 54, chose to move into Entergy’s power plant operations in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
“Honestly, I can’t see working for another company, that’s why I’m moving,” he said.
The decision, however, was not easy. Byrd and his wife raised two children while living in South Haven, a town they call home. When he first found out in 2017 that Palisades was going to close, he began looking for other job opportunities within Entergy. He found a job opportunity in Mississippi.
“I knew I was too young to retire, so I started looking,” he said. “I fell in love with Vicksburg, the history, the food, the Mississippi River. It seemed to fit well. »
When he moves to Vicksburg, Byrd will be in charge of training nuclear plant operators.
“If Palisades had stayed open, I would have stayed,” he said.
Other employees feel the same, including George Sleeper of South Haven.
Sleeper, 64, who has worked at Palisades for 39 years, however chose to retire from the plant.
Sleeper and his wife Margaret first came to South Haven in 1983 after George accepted a position with Palisades. The couple raised two children and were involved in various community activities. Their daughter, who is now an engineer for Boeing in Seattle, Washington, even interned at the Palisades plant while in college.
An engineer at the plant for many years, Sleeper has spent the last few years as superintendent of line planning.
Despite being offered the option to stay on during the three-year dismantling phase of the Palisades plant, Sleeper decided to choose retirement.
“It wasn’t too difficult a decision,” he said. “When Palisades was originally scheduled to close in 2018, I decided to retire at that time. When the decision was made to open the factory until 2022, I decided to stay until the end .
Sleeper, like other longtime Palisades employees who were interviewed soon after the plant closed, said what they would remember most about their jobs were the people they worked with.
“I’m gonna miss people,” Sleeper said. Not only that, Sleeper, who is now a member of the South Haven City Council, will miss how the employees of Palisades and its parent companies have helped the South Haven area.
Palisades positive influence on the community
When Palisades first went online in 1971, it was owned by CMS Energy Corp. (formerly known as Consumers Power) which then sold the plant in 2007 to Entergy Corp., based in New Orleans, Louisiana. Both companies felt compelled to strengthen the communities in the immediate vicinity of the plant, particularly South Haven and Covert Township.
“Palisades provided a benefit to the community, not just worker wages,” Sleeper said. “Employees were coaches for sports teams, other organizations. They were encouraged to get involved in the community. There are also businesses in the area that do business with Palisades.
Another longtime Palisades employee, Bobby Walker, echoed Sleeper’s comments.
Walker, who has worked at Palisades for 37 years at Palisades, first as a mailroom employee and more recently as a mechanical maintenance assistant, has also chosen to retire.
“Palisades has always been a partner in the communities of South Haven and Covert,” Walker said.
An avid basketball player and South Haven Public Schools coach a few years ago, Walker started the Bobby Walker Basketball Tournament. Palisades has agreed to help sponsor and provide volunteers for this. Over the years,
Palisades has also helped fund much larger community efforts. The company, through its foundation and employees, provided training and equipment to area firefighters, helped fund after-school programs for secret public schools, helped build homes for Habitat for Humanity, has helped fund food, shelter, and clothing programs, and has always been a top contributor to Southwest Michigan United Way’s annual fundraising campaign.
What stands out most in Walker’s mind is Palisades’ decision in the mid-1990s to open its computer training center where local businesses could send their employees to take computer courses and receive training. certification to do so.
“Companies were so grateful for that,” he said. Palisades also pioneered inclusiveness training for its employees in the 1990s, which was not really heard of at the time.
“They were way ahead of their time,” Walker commented. “People talk about inclusivity. They (Palisades) live it.
With Palisades closing, Walker worries not only about the loss of the business, its tax base and its employees, but also about the positive role the business and its employees have played in the greater South Haven area. .
“History is what we talk about,” he said. “We have helped over 50,000 people in Southwest Michigan with food, shelter, clothing and more. It’s hard to replace a big company like Palisades. It’s a huge loss for our neighbors and shows you what a blessing we’ve had, but life goes on.
Some workers will stay at the factory
About 260 Palisades employees are choosing to remain at the plant during its first phase of decommissioning and will be employed by Holtec International, which will purchase the Entergy plant at the end of June and begin the approximately 19-year process of decommissioning. safe disposal of spent nuclear. fuel on site and the dismantling of the large nuclear power plant.
Walter Nelson, head of nuclear training at Palisades, opted to stay on during the first phase of the decommissioning process, which is expected to take three years.
“I could retire,” Nelson said. “But when the opportunity arose for me to be an internship supervisor, I jumped at the chance. I wanted to be part of the dismantling process.
The Palisades plant, he continued, is one of several aging nuclear plants in the United States that are being decommissioned.
He hopes that the dismantling of the Palisades plant will serve as a model for other nuclear power companies to follow by ceasing operation of their aging sites and possibly restoring them for other uses.