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50 years after 'we almost lost Detroit,' America's nuclear power industry faces even graver doubts

The history of nuclear power in the United States has been marked by numerous milestones, many of them bad — accidents, construction snafus, engineering incompetence, etc., etc.

One anniversary of an incident that has cast a long shadow over the nuclear power industry’s claim for safety will be marked this week. On Oct. 5, 1966 — that’s 50 years ago Wednesday — Detroit Edison’s Fermi-1 nuclear plant suffered a partial meltdown, caused by a piece of floating shrapnel inside the container vessel. 

According to subsequent inspections, no radioactivity escaped to the environment. No injuries were reported inside or outside the plant. The worst case scenario of a “China Syndrome” incident in which melted fuel pooled within the containment vessel and reached critical mass didn’t even come close to occurring.

Nuclear industry apologists long have resented the public attention given to the Fermi-1 meltdown, especially through novelist John G. Fuller’s 1975 book about the case, “We Almost Lost Detroit” (which itself prompted the song of the same name by the late Gil Scott-Heron). Even industry critics have faulted Fuller’s book for technical inaccuracies and an overly theatrical tone. But it did put its finger on the bureaucratic and ideological forces that gave birth to America’s nuclear power industry and set the stage for decades of wretched management.

In many ways, the accident underscored the flaws in planning and operation of the industry that have dogged it ever since, all but destroying nuclear power’s reputation as a sustainable energy source that might supplant fossil fuel generation and help combat climate change.

To begin with, it showed how unforgiving nuclear power technology could be. The accident’s cause was trivial, yet it succeeded in shutting down the plant for four years. (Fermi-1 was permanently shut down in 1972, but its successor, the 1,100-megawatt Fermi-2, went online in 1988 and is still operating.) The plant was equipped with elaborate monitoring and alarm systems, yet when these showed unexpected readings, the onsite staff tended to dismiss them as anomalies. A partial meltdown eerily similar to the Fermi incident had occurred at a similar test reactor at Santa Susana, Calif., in 1959, yet the Detroit Edison staff failed to learn from the experience. The Fermi workers “must have remembered this accident pretty well, since they duplicated almost every key aspect of it just seven years later,” David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, commented recently.

The Fermi-1 technology was especially complex. The unit was a fast breeder reactor, which used a combined plutonium-uranium core to produce more fuel than it consumed during operation. It was cooled by a flow of liquid sodium, which can explode when it comes in contact with air or water, making “the possibility of sodium leaks a serious problem,” the nuclear expert Daniel F. Ford observed in 1982. 

On a larger scale, Fermi-1, like other U.S. reactors, was the product of a government campaign to show that the technology that had destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945 could be turned to peaceful uses. Its prime promoter was Lewis Strauss, the fanatically pro-nuclear chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, who first made the over-optimistic claim that nuclear energy would be “too cheap to meter.” For Strauss, who had President Dwight Eisenhower’s ear, the quest assumed religious overtones. “I believe firmly that our knowledge of the atom is intended by the Creator for the service and not the destruction of mankind,” he wrote in 1955.

The AEC took the lead in fighting concerns about nuclear safety. The commission’s own experts considered siting Fermi only 29 miles from the major population center of Detroit to be a potential “public hazard,” but their report was suppressed. The AEC’s construction permit for the plan was challenged by local unions, whose case went to the U.S. Supreme Court — which ruled that the AEC had sufficient authority to act. The 7-2 decision promoted a thunderous dissent from Justice William O. Douglas, who called the AEC’s permit “a light-hearted approach to the most awesome, the most deadly, the most dangerous process that man has ever conceived.”

The Fermi design showed how haphazard plant engineering could be, even in the face of the dangers. At a late stage of the design, conical “flow guides” were placed on the floor of the core unit. The idea of these pie-shaped structures was to direct the flow of the incoming sodium coolant into the core, and also to ensure that any molten core material would spread out, “lessening the chances of forming a critical mass,” Lochbaum explained.

To shield the flow guides from the heat of molten fuel, they were clad with a layer of heat-resistant zirconium. Yet during operation, two of the covers broke loose and floated around within the system, occasionally obstructing the cooling sodium flow. That accounted for the occasional, anomalous readings of high heat noticed by plant operators. But they couldn’t diagnose the problem until the interior could be inspected, after the damage was done and the plant shut down. That’s when they discovered, as Lochbaum says, that “the good intention of making the plant safer actually compromised its safety.”

Engineering mishaps keep occurring in the nuclear industry even today, magnifying doubts about its future. The most notable case is Southern California Edison’s botched refurbishment of the generating units at San Onofre, which rendered the plant inoperable and led to its permanent shutdown in 2013. Debate about who should pay for the fiasco has lasted for years, without resolution.

Only this year, Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. agreed to shutter its two Diablo Canyon nuclear units in 2024 and 2025, marking the demise of the nuclear generating industry in California and an end to PG&E’s slipshod management of its nuclear operation.  

Underlying the Diablo Canyon shutdown is the recognition that nuclear power no longer can compete economically with wind, solar and hydroelectric generation. Nuclear plants still account for 20% of U.S. electrical generation, but the prospects for growth are dismal. The World Nuclear Assn. reports that almost all that output comes from plants built between 1967 and 1990. Until 2013, ground had not been broken for a new reactor since 1977.

Nuclear advocates often blame the political opposition and overly heavy regulation, which prolongs the time needed to build and launch a new plant to decades; the nation’s newest nuclear plant, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar 2, gestated for 43 years before going on line in June.

But the real problem is that the nuclear industry lost its credibility almost at its inception, and has never recovered. It was hastily launched, endowed with the sort of government indulgence that breeds sloppiness, and has tried to conceal its faults through secrecy and legal bluster. The saga of Fermi-1 suggests that the nuclear industry could have had a much brighter future, if only it had operated better in the past.

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

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