U.S. nuclear plant had partial meltdown years before Three Mile Island
The Fermi 1 nuclear plant, which suffered a partial meltdown in 1966, stands on Detroit Edison property in an undated file photo.
March 29th, 2011
03:29 PM ET

U.S. nuclear plant had partial meltdown years before Three Mile Island

The news media took note of Monday's anniversary of the nuclear accident at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island power plant, but a partial meltdown at another U.S. reactor seems to have slipped from the public memory.

Fermi 1, a small nuclear reactor south of Detroit, experienced a loss-of-coolant accident in October 1966.

Fermi 1, owned by a consortium of utilities and industrial giants, went into service on leased Detroit Edison land in 1963. It was a prototype fast breeder reactor, meaning it was designed to create more fuel than it consumed.

In breeder reactors, a fertile radioactive material such as uranium-238 is bombarded with neutrons to create more potent materials such as plutonium-239, which can be used in typical fission reactors, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The small, experimental plant was not intended to produce commercial power, generating just 61 megawatts of electricity, said Guy Cerullo, a spokesman for DTE Energy, the successor to Detroit Edison.

"That could run a neighborhood," but not much more, Cerullo said.

The commercial Fermi 2 light water reactor next door, by comparison, produces 1,100 megawatts.

In October 1966, a piece of zirconium cladding inside the reactor chamber came loose. The metal blocked liquid sodium coolant from reaching two of the reactor's 103 subassemblies, each holding multiple fuel rods.

That fuel heated to the point of melting.

Because Fermi 1 was sodium-cooled, operators couldn't dump water on the fuel to cool it down, as engineers in Japan have been doing at the tsunami-damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant.

"You can't shut down easily because sodium will burn if you hit it with water," said Bill Martin, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Michigan. "... Sodium and water don't like each other."

Fortunately, the melted fuel rods stayed inside their subassemblies, allowing plant operators to carry out an orderly shutdown using spring-loaded boron control rods, Cerullo said.

"About 1% of the fuel was damaged," he said. "Everything was contained."

Using creative methods and purpose-made tools, engineers fished the loose zirconium plate out of the reactor vessel in December 1968, more than two years after the accident, Cerullo said, citing a 1975 official report.

The accident was described in John G. Fuller's fact-filled but somewhat sensational 1975 book, "We Almost Lost Detroit." Fuller is deceased and the book is out of print.

Detroit was in little or no danger during the Fermi 1 accident, Martin said.

"I think that requires a lot of assumptions that aren't very realistic," the professor said.

The damaged subassemblies were replaced, and the unit returned to service in July 1970, according to a Georgia State University online physics forum. Its operating license was not renewed in 1972, and the decommissioning process began. The fuel was returned to the federal government in the mid-1970s, Cerullo said.

The unused Fermi 1 building still stands, and the containment vessel is being cut up now, Cerullo said. The utility hopes, in the end, to leave no trace of the building.

"The eventual goal is to put it back to a green field," Cerullo said.

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Filed under: 2011 tsunami • Energy • History • Japan • Michigan • Nuclear • U.S.
soundoff (25 Responses)
  1. Planet X

    May God be with us all. http://nopolicestate.com

    March 29, 2011 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jazz7

      Haven't seen you in awhile , were have u been

      March 29, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Richard

    Nuclear energy is not so bad at all. In aneutronic fusion reactor, there is no risk of nuclear meltdown.

    March 29, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scottish Mama

      How many are in the US?

      March 29, 2011 at 8:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wzrd1

      As there has NEVER BEEN a fusion reactor and fusion is at best, decades away, your post is meaningless.

      April 22, 2011 at 10:57 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Lost States

    Don't forget the even earlier meltdown in Idaho... Nov 29, 1955.

    March 29, 2011 at 7:06 pm | Report abuse |
  4. banasy

    Yeesh, the more I read about Japan's troubles, the more accidents in the US' nuclear history is coming out. I wonder why?

    March 29, 2011 at 7:24 pm | Report abuse |
  5. nur amabo nur

    No worries, the EPA is using goverment tactics to reduce harmful exposure. They took this one from the feds playbook. In debt = print money – high radiation = increase safe exposure levels. To bad the fed didn't patten that idea, they could have sued the EPA. Btw 5 of the Fukushima 50 have passed (but that was 6 days ago) R.I.P.

    March 29, 2011 at 7:30 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Herbert

    banasy? You can write the J country? Wow, I'm impressed. Ja/p*n

    March 29, 2011 at 7:30 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Scottish Mama

    Just think if something happens in the U.S and 104 of them are not working correctly, just think of the fall out. Solar and wind here I come. Tankless solar water heater 1st. Lights next. Off grid. Bye, bye nuclear time bomb.

    March 29, 2011 at 8:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wzrd1

      And shiver in the dark with only cold water in the winter.

      April 22, 2011 at 10:58 pm | Report abuse |
  8. banasy

    Remember oldzoom? You and I asked him the same question, and he gave us the answer (this was when you were Cesar) I made a note of how he did it, guess you missed that post.

    March 29, 2011 at 9:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mmmmm

      LOL Its called
      molie-molie-molie-molie mole

      March 29, 2011 at 10:15 pm | Report abuse |
  9. chrissy

    herbert is cesar?

    March 29, 2011 at 11:33 pm | Report abuse |
  10. meee

    It was detroit. .who cares? the mutants there now look the same they did in '66

    March 29, 2011 at 11:40 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Mac McMurran

    How about Idaho Falls in 1961?

    March 30, 2011 at 1:40 am | Report abuse |
  12. lokay5

    The first commercial reactor in the country to meltdown was the SRE (Soduim Reactor Experiment) at Rocketdyne in Santa Suzanna in 1959.

    March 30, 2011 at 4:01 am | Report abuse |
    • sailrick

      The area of the Rockedyne accident, which is just west of the San Fernando Valley section of LA, is still fenced off as off limits restricted land that no one is allowed on.

      April 22, 2011 at 10:46 am | Report abuse |
  13. Alfred Brock

    It's a large nuclear plant now. A lot of people in the area were exposed to radiation. They still distribute iodine pills to the local population. The local governments and schools receive heavy subsidies in order to quiet their misgivings. It is ridiculous. It is on the river that leads down to Lake Erie. Right next to Fermi is the dirtiest and worst polluting coal plant in the United States. There is a mountain of radioactive and poisonous fly ash stored there on the banks of the river in a giant containment pond – there are plans to ship the fly ash west in order to use it to make cement for decorative fireplaces, wall mountings and patio objects.

    March 30, 2011 at 7:35 am | Report abuse |
  14. rmgsmith1

    You can also build THORIUM reactors. The science is there already! It is much safer, cheaper and more abundant than uranium. Why aren't we using this!?

    There is a great infographic explaining its properties and uses here:

    March 30, 2011 at 10:22 am | Report abuse |
  15. Nat

    The Enrico Fermi reactor, like other faster breeders, was fuelled by PLUTONIUM. This is why the meltdown was such a big deal – because with that type of fuel, a meltdown can run away into uncontrolled criticality – this is an incredibly dangerous scenario. Two previous US fast breeders (EBR I and EBR II) also had melt-down accidents. This makes it all the more surprising they would build one so close to Detroit.

    Modern faster breeders (such as France's Phénix and Superphénix) have devices such as "core catchers", which try to divide the fuel into sub-critical masses, should it melt. It is not clear how effective these would actually be, but they are an acknowledgement of the danger. Enrico Fermi did not have a core catcher.

    One should note that Superphénix suffered a terrorist rocket attack, by Carlos the Jackal, highlighting the dangers of terrorism with nuclear power, particularly plutonium-fuelled nuclear power.

    April 1, 2011 at 11:32 am | Report abuse |
    • Wzrd1

      Fast breeders PRODUCE plutonium, not use it. Try to get the facts straight.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:01 pm | Report abuse |
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