Did we really 'almost lose Detroit' in nuclear mishap 50 years ago?

NEWPORT, MICH. - As Michigan and the nation's energy profiles are poised to change dramatically in the coming decade, the 50th anniversary last week of the Fermi 1 nuclear plant mishap in Monroe County — the genesis for the book and song "We Almost Lost Detroit" — is a stark reminder that decisions on how to meet the economy's energy needs are nearly always controversial and may bring unanticipated consequences.

Fermi 1 was the worst nuclear accident at a U.S. commercial power plant in the years before Three Mile Island jolted the nation.  There were no injuries or hazardous radiation released, but the incident provided an early argument against nuclear power as too dangerous, including speculation at the time that a crushed beer can in the works had caused the partial meltdown.

The Fermi accident had many of the trappings of a Hollywood drama, including shadowy informants and a purported cover-up. Even then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey was in town at the time of the partial meltdown to dedicate the new Monroe County Public Library.

Experts in the nuclear industry emphasized how Fermi's safety mechanisms worked that afternoon of Oct. 5, 1966, and that the plant'scontainment structure was built to withstand far worse mishaps.  Detroit Edison later published its own book titled "We Did Not Almost Lose Detroit."

Still, Fermi 1 was knocked offline for nearly four years and opponents of nuclear power claimed a disaster was only narrowly avoided. A half-century later, the controversy over just how close Detroit came to having a Chernobyl (Soviet Union) or Fukushima (Japan) catastrophe in its backyard hasn't fully died down.

Anti-nuclear activists marked last week's anniversary with an event on "the narrow aversion of a cataclysmic disaster at Fermi 1."

Adding to the controversy was that Fermi 1 had a much different design than nearly all nuclear power plants operating today. It was an experimental "breeder" reactor, which meant it could theoretically create more nuclear fuel than it consumed.

The breeder reactors of the 1960s were widely seen as more difficult to operate than conventional nuclear plants, in part because of the shorter time window to regain control after a mishap because of the fast-moving neutrons in their design. Unlike water-cooled reactors, Fermi 1 required the nonstop circulation of liquid sodium, an extremely volatile substance that can explode if exposed to water or outside air.

"Your margin of error is so small that if something goes wrong, you don't have much time to fix it," Dave Lochbaum, director of the nuclear safety project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said of breeder technology.

Today nearly all U.S. commercial nuclear plants have a water-cooled design, like the Fermi 2 plant that still operates. DTE Energy, formerly Detroit Edison, recently obtained federal approval for a Fermi 3 reactor, but has yet to decide whether to proceed and build it, the company has said.

With the ongoing shutdown of aging coal-fired plants in Michigan and across the country, some once anticipated a resurgence in the U.S. nuclear industry, which hasn't opened a new plant since 1996. But the arrival of cheaper natural gas from hydraulic fracking made it less lucrative to build new nuclear plants or even continue operating some older ones.

Nuclear generated about 26% of Michigan's power last year and there are currently four commercial reactors in operation in the state.

The episode at Fermi 1 in Frenchtown Township was the subject of the 1975 anti-nuclear book, "We Almost Lost Detroit," and the inspiration for a song of the same name by the late Gil Scott Heron. The song was more recently covered by the Detroit indie band JR JR that still regularly plays the tune before audiences around the world.

Officials at Detroit Edison (now DTE Energy), which operated Fermi 1 and led the consortium of power and industrial firms that developed it, claimed the book and its author, the late John G. Fuller of Connecticut, grossly exaggerated the dangers to write an anti-nuclear power polemic.

Related: Marking 50 years since Fermi 1 accident

The Fermi 1 accident occurred when a metal object broke loose inside Fermi's reactor vessel and blocked sodium coolant from reaching a portion of the fuel, allowing about 1% of the total fuel to melt. The accident investigation lasted months and involved speculation that the errant object might be a beer can.

The official time of the incident is recorded as 3:09 p.m., when radiation alarms sounded and the reactor building automatically sealed shut. Control room instruments showed temperatures rising inexplicably in the reactor's core and radiation leaking out into the containment building.

Shortly afterward a phone call purportedly came into the Monroe County Sheriff's Office. The unidentified caller said he was with Detroit Edison and reported that something unknown had gone wrong at Fermi 1. However, the caller said the situation should not be publicized and no public alert be given, according to an account in Fuller's book.

Complicated design

Fermi I was conceived in the 1950s with a much different and more complex "breeder" design than the new light-water reactors going into Navy submarines and most first-generation nuclear plants.

Because breeder reactors can produce more nuclear fuel than they use, some saw a superior business model in selling two products: the electricity generated by the plants and the plutonium byproducts they produced, which could be sold to the U.S. government to make nuclear weapons or fuel for other reactors.

Named for physicist Enrico Fermi, creator of the first nuclear reactor, Fermi I was originally planned to be ready by late 1959, but didn't start up until 1963 because of delays including a sodium explosion mishap and an unsuccessful lawsuit to halt the plant led by UAW leader Walter Reuther, who said a breeder reactor was too dangerous for a populated area.

And Fermi I proved finicky to operate once it did open. By the time of the 1966 incident, the plant had only recently ramped up enough to supply electricity and had yet to breed any plutonium.

Fuller argued that breeder reactors were inherently more dangerous than their water-cooled cousins. This was due not only to their volatile sodium coolant and low margin for operator error, but also the possibility that an initial mishap, like a fuel melt, could trigger a far worse "secondary criticality" with a large explosive blast and deadly radiation release.

That theoretical possibility of a big explosion underlied Fuller's premise that Fermi 1 could have wiped out a portion of southeast Michigan and killed thousands. However, industry experts viewed this claim as hysterical and said it ignored the plant's safety equipment and containment building.

The Fermi 1 incident lasted about 20 minutes. Radiation levels died down once crews performed an emergency shutdown.

But weeks passed before engineers could peer into the reactor and figure out what happened: 40 pounds of nuclear fuel had melted, about 1% of the total fuel. And months passed before they learned the cause: an unknown metallic object had blocked the liquid sodium coolant from reaching the fuel.

Almost a year later, in September 1967, investigators managed to lower a periscope to the bottom of the reactor and, to much astonishment, discovered what looked like a crushed beer can. Extracting the object was "like taking out an appendix through the nostrils," Fuller wrote.

Finally, in early 1968, the errant metal was fished-out and identified as a zirconium metal plate that was installed in the reactor as a safety measure, but had broken loose.

The entire incident resulted in no injuries or hazardous radiation leaks. However, Fuller's book quotes an anonymous engineer who was on site to analyze the accident and purportedly said, "Let's face it, we almost lost Detroit."

Fermi 1 stayed offline until July 1970, when the reactor was started up again. It went on to produce a modest amount of electricity before it was permanently shut down in 1972 for financial reasons.

The 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island (Pa.) was significantly more serious than Fermi 1 and involved the melting of about half of the reactor core. Thousands were evacuated for that mishap, but there was no dangerous release of radioactive material because the plant's containment building remained intact.

In Detroit Edison's "We did not Almost Lose Detroit" rebuttal, the utility stressed that the incident at Fermi 1 was well within the plant's safety envelope. In an interview last month, DTE spokesman Guy Cerullo said the alleged dangers claimed in the book were very exaggerated.

"We did not lose Detroit and we did not almost lose it, either," Cerullo said.

Now 50 years since the accident, Fermi 1 remains one of just two nuclear breeder reactors built for a commercial potential to operate in the U.S.Nuclear industry experts say the drop in popularity of breeder reactors had more to do with economics than any safety concerns related to Fermi 1.

The business model for breeders fell away once it was realized that uranium — a fuel in conventional nuclear plants — wasn't as scarce a resource as assumed during the 1950s and 1960s and that breeder reactors therefore weren't needed to produce large quantities of nuclear fuel, said Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who has worked as a nuclear engineer.

The U.S. government also had less need by the 1970s to stockpile new nuclear weapons made from the plutonium produced by breeder reactors, Lochbaum said.

So breeder reactors remained more expensive than conventional reactors, but had less opportunity to make a profit by selling their nuclear byproducts as well as electricity.

"It is very expensive to do a breeder reactor and reprocessing," said Steve Kraft, a senior technical adviser at the Nuclear Energy Institute, "and compared to the cost of uranium these days, you're not going to save anything. It's going to cost you a bunch more."

Kraft later added, "To tell you the truth, I'm not certain the (breeder) technology was ever really fully developed in ways that would make it a reliable technology that large operating crews could operate in big industrial facilities."

Fuller died in 1990 at age 76. His widow, Liz Fuller of Weston, Conn., recalled last month that they married shortly after his Fermi book was published in 1975 and how he described conducting surreptitious interviews with sources who were afraid to be seen talking about what happened at the damaged nuclear plant.

Judd Fuller, his son from an earlier marriage, was about 14 years old when the book came out. He remembers his father getting angry during the research over feelings that a utility conglomerate had disregarded a real threat to the public. He also recalled meeting Heron following an early 1980s concert and sharing how it was his father who wrote the book that Heron's song "We Almost Lost Detroit" was based on.

"I remember him just sitting back in a chair and nodding his head and smiling. He goes 'So that was your dad, huh,' " Judd Fuller said.

Fermi I's reactor was welded shut and its nearly 80,000 gallons of radioactive liquid sodium placed into giant 55-gallon drums and shipped out in 1984. The sodium coolant was originally slated to go to a planned breeder reactor in Tennessee, but that plant never got built. Fermi 1's reactor was cut up and also removed in 2012.

DTE officials, citing security concerns, denied a Free Press request to see what remains of the abandoned Fermi. A photo provided by the utility shows several gray buildings still standing along with the plant's containment dome.

Situated nearby is Fermi 2, a boiling-water nuclear plant reactor began commercial operations in 1988. DTE is currently seeking to extend the plant's operating license 20 years through 2045.

Eldon Alexanderson, who died in 1993, was a Detroit Edison engineer who helped design, build and operate Fermi 1, and later presided over its disassembling. He gave interviews to Fuller, but disagreed with the disaster-barely-avoided premise that came out in the book.

His son, Alvin Alexanderson of Goldendale, Wash., said his father saw the book as an attack on the nuclear power industry that made its argument by exaggerating the dangers at Fermi 1. The elder Alexanderson as well as his wife, Emily (Pauline) Anderson, both contributed to Detroit Edison's official rebuttal.

"He didn't think we almost lost Detroit," his son said last month, "but it certainly was a serious problem back when we were still learning how those reactors worked."

Eldon Alexanderson retired from Detroit Edison in 1984 and became a nuclear industry consultant. To the end, Eldon Alexanderson was a supporter of breeder reactors and nuclear power, which he saw as the most environmentally friendly way to generate power.

"He thought the dangers of fossil fuels vastly outweighed the dangers of nuclear," his son said. "He felt strongly that society had to develop nuclear as a bridge to better energy sources and to get away from fossil fuels."

Detroit Free Press


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