Yesterday on WNYC-FM's Brian Lehrer Show, Gwyneth Cravens, author of Power to Save the World: The Truth about Nuclear Energy, made a joint appearance with Jim Riccio, Nuclear Policy Analyst for Greenpeace.
Normally, I'd suggest that you take a listen, but given the fact that Riccio spent most of the interview talking over Cravens and not letting her get a word in edgewise, I'm afraid there's not much to recommend it. However, there was one point of contention between the two guests that I think bears closer examination.
At one point during the interview, Cravens made the point that there hasn't been any other core meltdowns of a commercial nuclear reactor in the U.S., at which point Riccio started berating Cravens about Fermi 2, and how she should have read a book by John G. Fuller called We Almost Lost Detroit concerning the accident.
Fermi 2 is a 1,098 MWe General Electric boiling water reactor owned by DTE Energy and currently still in operation. There has never been a core accident there.
Instead, Riccio was probably referring to Fermi 1, an experimental breeder reactor that is currently in the process of decommissioning. I'll let NRC tell the rest of the story (I've inserted a couple of line breaks to help with readability):
The Enrico Fermi Atomic Power Plant, Unit 1 (Fermi 1) was a fast breeder reactor power plant cooled by sodium and operated at essentially atmospheric pressure. The reactor plant was designed for a maximum capacity of 430 Mwt; however, the maximum reactor power with the first core loading (Core A) was 200 Mwt. The primary system was filled with sodium in December of 1960 and criticality was achieved in August 1963. The reactor was tested at low power in its first couple years of operation. Power ascension testing above 1 Mwt commenced in December 1965, immediately following receipt of the high power operating license.So yes, there was a partial core meltdown at Fermi 1, but it was contained, no radiation was released, no one was injured and after a time, the reactor was restarted.
In October 1966, during a power ascension, a zirconium plate at the bottom of the reactor vessel became loose and blocked sodium coolant flow to some fuel subassemblies. Two subassemblies started to melt. Radiation monitors alarmed and the operators manually shut down the reactor. No abnormal releases to the environment occurred. Three years and nine months later, the cause had been determined, cleanup completed, fuel replaced, and Fermi 1 was restarted.
In 1972, the core was approaching the burnup limit. In November 1972, the Power Reactor Development Company made the decision to decommission Fermi 1. The fuel and blanket subassemblies were shipped offsite in 1973. The non-radioactive secondary sodium system was drained and the sodium sent to Fike Chemical Company. The radioactive primary sodium was stored in storage tanks and in 55 gallon drums until the sodium was shipped offsite in 1984. Decommissioning of the Fermi 1 plant was originally completed in December 1975. The site has been in a SAFSTOR status, awaiting final decommissioning.
Fermi 1 was an experimental breeder reactor, not a commercial light water reactor like the 104 currently in operation in the U.S. So, Cravens' claim was correct.
I will admit, however, that I've never read We Almost Lost Detroit (Fermi is actually slightly closer to Toledo, but I guess that wouldn't have been as dramatic). However, I did take a look at the Wikipedia entry regarding its late author, Mr. Fuller. It makes for interesting reading (again, I've added a line break):
John Grant Fuller, Jr. (1913 - 1990) was a New England-based American author of several non-fiction books and newspaper articles, mainly focusing on the theme of extra-terrestrials and the supernatural. For many years he was a regular columnist for the Saturday Review magazine. His three most famous books were The Ghost of Flight 401, Incident at Exeter, and The Interrupted Journey. The Ghost of Flight 401 was based on the tragic Eastern Air Lines airplane crash in December 1972, and the alleged supernatural events which followed; it was eventually turned into a popular 1978 made-for-television movie.You can always count on Greenpeace to reference the latest in peer reviewed science. [Sigh.]
Incident at Exeter concerned a series of well-publicized UFO sightings in and around the town of Exeter, New Hampshire in the fall of 1965. Fuller personally investigated the sightings and interviewed many of the eyewitnesses, he also claimed to have seen a UFO himself during his investigation. The Interrupted Journey tells the story of the Betty and Barney Hill abduction. The Hills were a married couple who claimed to have been abducted in 1960 by a UFO in the White Mountains of New Hampshire while on vacation ...