Reminders of the risks of nuclear power come from past/present, near/far

February 29, 2012

This is the latest in a series of columns discussing the Environmental Justice Principles drafted and adopted by delegates to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit held Oct. 24-27, 1991. This week, we’re continuing our discussion of EJ Principle number four: Environmental justice calls for universal protection from nuclear testing, extraction, production and disposal of toxic/hazardous wastes and poisons and nuclear testing that threaten the fundamental right to clean air, land, water and food.

Fermi 2 Nuclear Power Plant in Newport, Michigan

As we come up on the one-year anniversary of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster in Japan, reports are still emerging about the way the Japanese government kept critical information from their own public in the wake of one of the worst nuclear catastrophe's the world has ever seen. Likewise with three nuclear sites in the state of Michigan, we should also keep in mind other reminders about the potentially grave risks inherent to nuclear facilities closer to home. 

On the March 11 anniversary of the Fukushima melt down, there will be a special screening of the anti-nuclear film “Into Enternity” at the Unity Church of Livonia beginning at 7:30 p.m. The film will focus on the environmental delimas surrounding disposal of nuclear waste materials, and give an update the proposed Fermi 3 nuclear plant, the world's largest Fukushima styled reactor. 

There are currently three nuclear power facilities in the state: Cook in Bridgman, Palisades in South Haven and Fermi in Newport – just 40 miles south of Detroit. All three power plants are located in southern Michigan along the shores of the Great Lakes, and provide 27 percent of the state's energy.
As we all saw last year with Fukushima, all nuclear plants have to be located near large bodies of water because water plays a key role in both the production and containment of nuclear energy. Michigan's location in the heart of the Great Lakes region means the old NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) game of environmental injustice is one Metro Detroiters should not lose sight of. Just ask the residents of another of the world's great cities, Tokyo. 

Of course, Detroit's nuclear safety concerns are helped by the fact that the region doesn't sit on one of the world's most active seismic regions like Japan, but any one who knows the history of the nuclear industry in Michigan can tell you that's no invitation to sleep on the issue. On October 5, 1966 the Fermi 1 reactor suffered a partial meltdown caused by a blockage in one of its spigots. The blockage caused an insufficient amount of coolant to enter and the problem went unnoticed by plant operators until some of the plants fuel rods reached 700 degrees causing them to melt. 

Thankfully the plants alarms kicked in to prevent a complete meltdown but the incident should serve as a reminder that vigilance is always warranted when it comes to nuclear power. Fermi 1, named for nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi, who worked on the development of the world's first atomic bomb and later became a pioneer of nuclear energy, was eventually shutdown in 1972. 

Its successor, Fermi 2, came online in 1988, and despite a brush with a tornado in 2010 that caused damage to the facility, it remains online. That incident should be kept in mind however, as warmer winters and the subsequent increased tornado activity could be the biggest natural threat to nuclear facilities in many parts of the country. 

The Fermi plant is owned by DTE Energy and maintained by the Detroit Edison Company. DTE filed an application to build a third reactor, Fermi 3, at a cost of $10 billion in 2008, but have been thwarted so far by the efforts of local citizens on the basis that it would threaten Lake Erie. Somehow, I'm betting that we've not heard the end of this story. 

Meanwhile on the western side of the state's southern shoreline there have been even more recent developments. Earlier this month, the Palisades nuclear power plant received a downgrade of its facility from federal regulators as a Valentines Day present. The heartfelt gift put Palisades in the company of only two other plants in the country. 

According to an Associated Press report by their environmental writer John Flesher, “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission assigns the more than 100 nuclear reactors in the U.S. to one of five categories based on their safety performance. Most are in the top-performing group. Palisades was bumped to the No. 2 category last month and now will join two others in the third category.”

There's only one other reactor in the country with a lower rating: the Brown's Ferry unit in Athens, Georgia. It stands alone with that distinction. 

There were two violations that led to the downgrade at Palisades. One was on Sept. 25 of last year when an electrical fault caused by plant workers led to the reactor and half of the control room indicators to shut down. According to NRC report, this triggered safety systems that actual plant conditions did not justify. Agency investigators went on to described the incident as having “substantial safety significance.”

The other violation was the failure of a water pump that cools safety equipment. The pumps failure resulted from cracking of one of the couplings that hold together rods in the cooling system. The same failure had happened in 2009, and the commission said an inspection showed the plant hadn’t done enough to prevent a recurrence. The NRC has scheduled a public hearing on the matter for February 29 in South Haven. 

So as we gear up to remember what happened in Japan over a year ago, let's remember to keep our eyes and ears open here at home.