Did we really ‘almost lose Detroit’ in nuclear mishap 50 years ago? via Detroit Free Press

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.


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.”

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