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The Palisades nuclear power plant on the shores of Lake Michigan has one of the worst safety ratings in the country. The plant had five unplanned shutdowns last year. This year, as Michigan Radio's Lindsey Smith reports, federal regulators are keeping an even closer eye on the facility.
(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUNNING)
LINDSEY SMITH, BYLINE: The Palisades nuclear power plant is tucked in between tall sand dunes at the southern edge of Van Buren State Park in Covert Township. Kathy Wagaman remembers spending a ton of time on the beach at the state park, playing football, swimming, sailing with no real regard for the nuclear plant.
KATHY WAGAMAN: I know that back in the '80s and early '90s - oh, actually, up until 9/11 - we all used to swim out in front of it because the water was warm.
SMITH: Wagaman now heads the South Haven Area Chamber of Commerce. South Haven is a small tourist city seven miles north of Palisades. Wagaman says the nuclear plant is one of the largest employers in Van Buren County. About 700 people work at the plant every day, and it is the county's largest taxpayer.
WAGAMAN: They've been a very good neighbor, and I just feel confident that they're taking good care of this.
SMITH: This is a series of safety problems at the plant last year. The nuclear reactor at Palisades stopped four out of the five times the plant shut down unexpectedly. Entergy Nuclear Operations owns Palisades and 10 other nuclear plants in the United States. Federal regulators say the unexpected shutdowns at Palisades are not common.
There are just over 100 nuclear power plants in the U.S. - Palisades is one of only four with such a bad safety rating. That scares Maynard Kaufman. He and his wife live on a small farm 11 miles inland.
MAYNARD KAUFMAN: If you just have one accident, and if it were only one in a million, it is a cost that we don't want to have to bear.
SMITH: Kaufman feels so strongly he rebuilt his home so that it relies on wind and solar power. It gives him a good feeling knowing none of his energy is coming from the Palisades plant.
After three security checkpoints, Palisades spokesman Mark Savage takes me into the plant's control room. It's quiet so the five or six operators can concentrate.
MARK SAVAGE: Everything is done by procedure. There's nothing that we do here that says, oh, I'm going to turn this knob. It has to have a procedure by it.
SMITH: But one night last September, a worker did not follow procedures. In fact, the worker got permission from a supervisor to do so. During the work, an electrical circuit shorted out, and the control room lost half its indicators. That was the most significant safety violation at Palisades last year.
SAVAGE: Were there mistakes made? Yes, there were. And those have been corrected.
SMITH: No one was fired because of the incident. Savage says the main cause of all the safety violations last year, human error, has already declined this year. Jack Geisner is with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He oversees the inspection teams at Palisades. Geisner points out the NRC has a really low threshold for mistakes at nuclear plants.
JACK GEISNER: So although, I think, there's concerns warranted - I'm concerned - I mean, we've concluded that the plant's operating safely.
SMITH: Geisner says his inspection teams will spend thousands of man-hours at the plant this year and beyond until Entergy can prove the safety culture at Palisades is up to federal regulators' standards. For NPR News, I'm Lindsey Smith in South Haven, Michigan.