By Keith Gunter
Before Fukushima, before Chernobyl, before Three Mile Island, there is the legendary story of Fermi-1: “We Almost Lost Detroit.” It was the title of the popular nuclear power primer by John Fuller and the classic and famous anti-nuclear anthem by the late Gil-Scott Heron.
On October 5, 1966, the Fermi-1 experimental fast breeder reactor (designed to produce plutonium) suffered a partial meltdown when a piece of zirconium plating became dislodged by the flow of the reactor’s liquid sodium coolant. The melting of the highly-enriched uranium fuel was an extremely precarious situation and it would be nearly nine years before the harrowing story would be made public in Fuller’s account.
I visited Fermi-1 two weeks before the accident in September 1966 on a class field trip. After 38 years of energy policy activism around nuclear power, renewable energy, conservation, and energy efficiency issues, I have a sense of being something of an eyewitness to history: accidental, or maybe not so much (see “Antinuclear Family: Brothers United In Fight Against Fermi-3 In Monroe”) “News Currents” by Curt Guyette, former Metro Times news editor and Michigan Journalist Of The Year to be, Metro Times March 25-31, 2009.
Fifty years ago, in the U.S. nuclear industry’s heyday, catastrophic nuclear accidents were dismissed as fundamentally impossible due to superior American construction and engineering skills, married to overall “defense in depth” reactor containment designs. Not only completely safe, Lewis Strauss, the first chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, once claimed that electricity from nuclear fission would be “too cheap to meter.”
But beneath the veneer of the industry’s self-proclaimed mastery of the power of the atom, secret U.S. government safety studies warned of the possibilities of a meltdown resulting in thousands of casualties with “an area the size of Pennsylvania” permanently contaminated.
In the face of such enormous potential financial liability, the nuclear industry was able to come into existence only with the passage of the Price Anderson Act by Congress in 1957 (extended to this very day). Price Anderson shields nuclear utilities and reactor manufacturers from the vast majority of liability from nuclear accidents (potentially hundreds of billions of dollars) and places it squarely on the U.S. taxpayer.
So when the Union of Concerned Scientists filed Freedom Of Information Act requests that made the secret studies public in 1973, the industry was presented with a new PR problem. No longer able to claim meltdowns as impossible, the nuclear public relations establishment began making the case that such catastrophes were so unlikely as to never happen at all.
Such was the conclusion of the Reactor Safety Study (RSS), the so-called Rasmussen Report, headed by Dr. Norman Rasmussen and a team of researchers associated with Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 70’s. Using a methodology known as “fault-tree analysis”, the study attempted to identify all possible combinations of mechanical, human, and design error that could lead to a meltdown. The Rasmussen team’s “probabilistic risk assessment” concluded such events could be compared to the likelihood of a meteor striking a large city or a fully-loaded 747 crashing into a World Series baseball game.
In January 1979, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission withdrew its endorsement of the Rasmussen study, citing fault-tree analysis as a flawed methodology. Ten weeks later, Three Mile Island blew a huge hole in the nuclear industry’s PR facade while “The China Syndrome” packed the nation’s movie theaters. The NRC’s post-mortem on TMI some 18 months later, the Kemeny Commission report, would conclude that Three Mile Island Unit-1 actually came within a single hour of a complete meltdown.
Then, in the early 1980’s, three General Electric nuclear engineers resign their positions due to their concerns about flaws in the GE Boiling Water Reactor Mark-1 containment design (same as at Fukushima and at Fermi-2, the world’s largest). Harold Denton, a former top reactor safety official at the NRC, once put the probability of containment failure at 90% under “severe accident conditions.”
When Chernobyl exploded in the Soviet Ukraine in April 1986, there was a global realization that the worst can happen at nuclear plants. But the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) went on a major public relations offensive claiming that Western-design reactors were superior.
But potentially catastrophic design flaws would not be limited to the GE Mark-1 and Mark-2 designs. In March 2002, at the Davis-Besse reactor 20 miles east of Toledo, just across Lake Erie (a Babcock & Wilcox reactor, as with TMI), a football-sized hole was discovered in the vessel head (a critical part of the containment structure surrounding the reactor’s core). A previously undetected boric acid leak over time ate through six inches of carbon steel, leaving 3/16 of an inch of bubbling stainless-steel inner liner (heated to 600 degrees F. at 2200 psi.) That stainless steel, the width of a line of news type, was all that was left preventing another TMI scale nuclear accident, or worse.
Through the prism of a human lifetime, 50 years is an epic milestone. Nearly 40 years of activism can provide insight, context, and understanding. So when the phone rang at home on the morning of March 11, 2011, it was my brother Paul, Director of Reactor Oversight at Beyond Nuclear, who chilled me to the bone.
“Keith, I just got a call from CNN in Washington. They said to get over right away. A meltdown has begun at Fukushima.” Just before 6 PM that afternoon, I watched as he warned in an eight-second clip on Wolf Blitzer’s “Situation Room” program that “The concern here is that we could literally blow the roof off of this reactor.” Tony Petrangelo, a spokesman for Nuclear Energy Institute, responded in the report by dismissing such an event as extremely unlikely.
The first image I saw on CNN the following morning was the Fukushima Unit-3 reactor building, destroyed by a hydrogen gas explosion sending up a huge radioactive mushroom cloud. In that moment, I realized that Paul was not a clairvoyant warning millions on TV of imminent catastrophe. Instead, it was the warnings of Harold Denton, the resigned GE engineers and others finally coming to pass in the real world. Yet the NRC continues to allow these reactors to operate across the country.
Fifty years after Fermi-1, we see that nuclear accidents will happen—beyond what was considered possible. Fifty years after Fermi-1, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) is at the mercy of fate with three reactor cores completely melted—a totally unprecedented situation: China Syndrome times three. No amount of 21st Century human technology and engineering skill can undo what has been done.
Fifty years after Fermi-1, with Fukushima off of the front page and with secrecy still the watchword of the nuclear power industry, no news is bad news.
Keith Gunter is Co-Chair of Alliance To Halt Fermi-3, a union of concerned citizens and 21 allied organizations opposed to the construction of a third nuclear plant near Monroe, MI. The Alliance favors the shutdown of the existing Fermi-2 nuclear plant as soon as possible.