Michigan Nuclear Power

John Belanger
March 19, 2013

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2013

Fig. 1: Fermi 2 near Detroit, Michigan. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Attempting to reduce my ignorance of the energy situation in my home state, Michigan, I found myself deep in the bowels of the nearest library. Few people seem to visit those sections, and the search for call numbers began with first finding a light switch to see the many rows of dusty books. After lugging my finds to the circulation desk, the librarian had to write down information for several books because they had never been checked out before, and certainly none were fresh off the printing press.

To judge by their covers, they are large, dull-colored cures for insomnia - perfect for piling up in my bedroom. Daunted by their mass, I sat down to think about the subject and soon was doodling. Looking down at my sketches and then around me to those heaps of books, I realized the wide spectrum of connotations that are brought to mind by the word "nuclear." On my paper were mushroom clouds and flying saucers. My mind was filled with thoughts of North Korea, cancer, and radioactive waste. But those books were grounded, technical, and dry. To say "nuclear" is to summon up wild fantasies along with hard science. It is a topic both objective and factual, but inextricably emotional as well. To discuss nuclear power is to tell a story. For some, it is a science fiction adventure. For others, a worrying drama. For me, it's a story about home.

Growing up in Michigan, I know the classic look of the Fermi 2 cooling towers. The way they rise up next to Lake Erie is shown in Figure 1. What made an even greater impression though, was taking a high school field trip to see the University of Michigan's experimental nuclear reactor. I think it was called "The Phoenix Project." Now I am hazy about the exact name, but at the time, I was confused about the science behind it. I certainly did not understand how it worked, but I was mesmerized by the blue light I saw glowing from a large cube in a pool of water. I was surprised that it wasn't green like I'd learned from popular culture. Culture likely played a role in the sense of danger that I felt too. Having to wear a dosimeter made me think that cancer was a possibility, if not a probable outcome. Some parts of the tour were tediously technical, and I daydreamed about inheriting super powers from the nuclear energy that must be filling my body. But I could also see it going wrong. Perhaps extra arms would grow out of me and I would end up looking like a freakish human tree. Despite my fantastic ideas - or because of them, I'm not sure - I couldn't get nuclear physics out of my mind, and there was a good spell where I thought I would major in nuclear engineering at the University of Michigan. I wasn't sure if that fit in with my life plan, but I knew that the blue light in that building was something special. I haven't lost my interest in nuclear physics, but here I would like to bring attention to the story and emotions that surround it.

In order to find reputable sources, I found myself digging through old books and government reports. I found data that I was looking for, such as Alaskan Senator Frank Murkowski saying that 24% of Michigan's electricity comes from nuclear power plants, but I was more struck by the fierce sentiments the issue brings out in political discourse. [1] The senator was presenting figures to show that states have a vested interested in handling the issue of nuclear power, and specifically addressing what must be done with the waste. In the Congressional Record, Murkowski laments the problem:

"Some say, leave it at the site. Some others say, put it in casks above ground and store it. Well, then what do you do with it - put it off? Remember, all this time, we are in violation of our contractual commitments to take the waste in 1998. So the clock ticks." [1]

While Murkowski asks for action, he also makes it seem that the anti-nuclear lobby is unrealistic and nearly as dismissive of the problem as state legislators.

"If you shut down the reactors, where are you going to pick up the power? The critics of nuclear energy don't care about that because they do not want to see nuclear energy expanded to any extent." [1]

Those words reminded me of an article I'd come across in the New York Times about a Michigan woman who battled nuclear power. [2] Her name was Dr. Mary P. Sinclair (she got her PhD so people would stop calling her "that housewife.") [2] As co-founder of the organization Don't Waste Michigan, she was one of these critics that Murkowski noted. [3] For her, the nuclear story was also a story of home, ten minutes from home. [2] She led efforts to stop Consumers Power from building a twin-reactor nuclear station near Midland, Michigan. [2] It must have seemed a losing battle, given the $4.1 billion spent on construction. [2] Nevertheless, in 1984 the nuclear project was halted, and a year later Dr. Sinclair was featured on 60 Minutes. [4] Environmentalists credited her with a huge victory when the site was converted to a natural gas facility. [2] The Times quoted Charles MacInnis, a spokesman for Consumers Power, as saying, "I want to blame her, but I don't want to give her any credit." [2] That line gives a good picture of the feelings that seem to run deep and opposite in the nuclear realm.

Perhaps another good illustration of the strong divide is something I saw at the library. A book in a red, cloth binding proclaims with its title in large faded letters, "WE ALMOST LOST DETROIT." [5] The author, John Fuller, covers the partial core meltdown in 1966 at the Fermi 1 reactor, a breeder reactor, just a short drive from downtown Detroit. [5] Most alarming is the claim that "if one more control rod had jammed [the nearby town] could have been wiped out." [5] Also worrisome though, is the foreword to Fuller's book, written by Carl Hocevar. He explains that he left his position as a safety contractor for the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) because he "became particularly concerned about the way in which the AEC had continually misled the public about the safety of nuclear reactors." [5]

Though decades old, Fuller's book raises concerns that are relevant at present. Nuclear power in Michigan is not a concluded story. The debate goes on, and it is hard to know whether one side or the other is winning. Currently, Detroit Edison is proposing to build a Fermi 3 reactor, which groups such as Don't Waste Michigan are opposing, continuing Mary Sinclair's fight against nuclear energy in Michigan. [6] How the story ends remains to be seen.

© John Belanger. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] F. H. Murkowski, "Debate on Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1999," 146 Cong. Rec. S464, 8 Feb 00.

[2] M. L. Wald, "Battling Nuclear Waste in Michigan," New York Times, 8 Dec 92.

[3] J. Flescher, "Oldest, Smallest Commercial Nuclear Plant Closing This Week," Associated Press, 27 Aug 97.

[4] T. Lascari, "Former Midlander, 'Pioneer for the Environment', Dies at 92," Midland Daily News, 15 Jan 11.

[5] J. G. Fuller, We Almost Lost Detroit (Ballentine, 1976).

[6] D. Patch, "DTE Has Until Next Week to Rebut Nuclear Objections," Toledo Blade, 7 Mar 13.