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Palisades employees reflect on future plans, memories at power plant

  • May 31, 2022
The Herald-Palladium

COVERT — It took only 10 minutes for operations control staff to shut down the reactor on May 20, which has kept the Palisades Power Plant operating for the past 50 years.

Those 10 minutes proved to be a bittersweet moment for the employees at the Covert Township plant.

For Jim Byrd, a South Haven resident and staff operations manager for Palisades, the years of training he has undergone made the shut-down operation almost like clockwork.

"We've been trained to remain calm and collected anytime there's a shut down of the reactor," he said.

But the May 20 shut down was different. It wasn't for a maintenance outage or for safety repairs. It proved to be the final shut down.

"The emotions happened after work ended," Byrd said, regarding how he felt at the end of his shift. "We didn't have time to dwell on it during the shut down. We remained calm, cool and collected and did our job."

But now, Byrd and other Palisades employees will have to look to their future.

Plans for Palisades workers

Among Palisades' current staff of about 550 employees, 130 plan to relocate to other jobs offered at power generation plants and facilities owned by Entergy Corp., Palisades' parent company, according to company officials.

Another 260 workers will remain for several years with Holtec International, which will take over over the decommissioning of the plant, while the remaining 180 Palisades employees will choose other jobs – with more than half of that number eligible for retirement.

Byrd, who is 54, chose to relocate to Entergy's power plant operations in Vicksburg, Miss.

"I honestly can't see working for another company, that's why I'm moving," he said.

The decision wasn't easy, however.

Byrd and his wife raised two children while living in South Haven, a town they consider home. When he first found out in 2017 that Palisades would close, he began to look for other job opportunities within Entergy. He found one in Mississippi.

"I knew I was too young to retire, so I began searching," he said. "I kind of fell in love with Vicksburg, the history, the food, the Mississippi River. It seemed a good fit."

When he eventually moves to Vicksburg, Byrd will be in charge of training nuclear power 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 been with Palisades for the past 39 years, instead chose retirement from the plant.

Sleeper and his wife, Margaret, first came to South Haven in 1983 after George accepted a position at Palisades. The couple raised two children and became involved in a variety of community activities. Their daughter, who is now an engineer for Boeing in Seattle, Wash., even served as an intern at Palisades while in college.

An engineer at the plant for many years, Sleeper has spent the past several years as online scheduling superintendent.

Although he was offered the opportunity to stay through the three-year decommissioning phase of the Palisades plant, Sleeper decided to choose retirement.

"It wasn't too difficult of a decision," he said. "When Palisades was originally set to close in 2018, I decided I would just retire then. When the decision was made for the plant to remain open until 2022, I decided to stay through to the end."

Sleeper, like other longtime Palisades employees who were interviewed shortly after the plant closed, said what they will remember most about their job are the people they worked with.

"I'm going to miss the people," he said. Sleeper, who is now a South Haven city council member, will miss the ways in which Palisades employees and its parent companies helped the South Haven area.

A positive influence

When Palisades first powered online in 1971, it was owned by CMS Energy Corp. – formerly known as Consumers Power – which would sell the plant in 2007 to Entergy Corp.

Both companies felt an obligation to bolster the communities within the immediate vicinity of the plant, particularly South Haven and Covert Township.

"Palisades has provided a benefit to the community, not just worker salaries," Sleeper said. "Employees were coaches for sports teams, other organizations. They were encouraged to get involved in the community. There have also been companies in the area that do business with Palisades."

Another longtime Palisades worker, Bobby Walker, echoed Sleeper's observations.

Walker, who has been with Palisades for the past 37 years at Palisades, first as a mail room employee and more recently as a mechanical maintenance assistant, has also chosen to retire.

"Palisades has always been a partner in the South Haven and Covert communities," Walker said.

As an avid basketball player and coach for South Haven schools a number of years ago, Walker started the Bobby Walker Basketball Tournament. Palisades agreed to help sponsor and provide volunteers for it.

Over the years, Palisades has contributed funding for bigger community endeavors.

The company, through its foundation and its employees, has provided training and equipment for area firefighters, helped fund extra curricular programs for Covert Public Schools, helped build homes for Habitat for Humanity, contributed funding for food, shelter and clothing programs, and has been a contributor to Southwest Michigan United Way's annual fundraising campaign.

What sticks out most in Walker's mind though is Palisades' decision in the mid-1990s to open its computer training center where local businesses could send their employees to take part in computer courses and receive certification for doing so.

"Businesses were so thankful for that," he said. Palisades also pioneered inclusiveness training for its employees during the 1990s, something that wasn't really heard of at the time. "They were way ahead of their time," Walker said. "People talk about inclusiveness. (Palisades) lives it."

With the closing of Palisades, Walker worries about the loss not only of the company, its tax base and the workforce, but the role the company has played in the South Haven area.

"History is what we're talking 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 had. But life goes on."

Some workers stay put

About 260 Palisades employees are choosing to remain at the plant through its first decommissioning phase and will be employed by Holtec International, which will take over by the end of June.

Walter Nelson, nuclear training manager at Palisades, has chosen to remain during the first phase of the 19-year decommissioning effort, which is expected to last three years.

"I could retire," Nelson said. "But when the opportunity presented itself for me to be a training supervisor, I leaped at it. I wanted to be part of the decommissioning process."

The Palisades plant, he said, is one of several aging nuclear power plants throughout the United States that are in the process of being shut down.

He said he hopes the decommissioning of Palisades will serve as a model for other nuclear power plant companies to follow in discontinuing operations of their aging sites and eventually restoring them for other uses.

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