Issue 09, Volume 85
Aug. 22, 2012
You may or may not be aware of it, but there is a nuclear power plant located roughly 50 kilometres from the University of Windsor.
Producing enough power for a city of one million, the Enrico Fermi Nuclear Generating Station is located on the shore of Lake Erie halfway between Detroit and Toledo. It’s visible from parts of Windsor and Amherstburg, where students have been trained in nuclear meltdown drills since a sodium cooiIng system malfunction caused a partial meltdown in 1966.
Owned by DTE Energy, and operated by Detroit Edison, Fermi is made up of three components: Fermi l, Fermi 2 and Fermi 3.
Fermi I underwent a partial meltdown in 1966, and according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the event caused the radiation monitors to be alarmed and operators manually shut down the reactor. While no abnormal releases to the environment occurred, Fermi I was decommissioned in 1972.
Fermi 2 was opened in 1988 and is currently in operation and there is presently a $10 billion proposal to build Fermi 3.
Fermi, named for Italian Nobel Prize winning physicist Enrico Fermi who worked on the development of the first nuclear reactor, is constantly undergoing repairs according to DTE Nuclear Power representative Guy Cerullo.
“Safety systems are tested on a regular basis. We have redundant safety systems throughout the plant, and [they are] set to very high standards.”
Cerullo explained that Fermi produces electrical energy to provide to the grid using a fissioning atom. Fermi creates heat that boils water, which in turn
creates steam that turns a generator and creates electricity. According to
Cerullo, Fenni is able to “produce 1,100 megawatts (11 million kilowatts) at any
In terms of emergency preparedness, Cerullo explained that Fermi always prepares for the worst. “We are constantly improving in that area. We’ve got one of the most rigorous [preparedness plans in the country].”
Cerullo considers the nuclear industry to be the ‘gold standard’ in emergency preparedness as they undergo constant drills to know how to properly react
in the unlikely event of an emergency. “We’re having drills right now as a matter of fact. A federally graded exercise next week … we’ve had a number of drills leading up to this.”
A spokesperson for FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, explained that “if there were to be a situation, FEMA would only provide a supporting role,” and the NRC would take the lead in dealing with it.
Scott Burnell, an NRC spokesperson, said they are in charge of how the plant prepares for things “inside the fence.”
“FEMA has a role in ensuring that things are taken care of outside the fence, in the wider community. The interface right at the fence line is making sure that the plant is working effectively with local county and state officials to keep everything in sync, if anything were to happen.”
Burnell explained that the most basic concept in emergency preparedness for nuclear plants is that “you want the plant to be looking forward in time, so
that they are taking actions that will protect the public in advance of something happening. “
The lowest level of emergency, called an unusual event, is reserved for “a situation that shouldn’t affect the public, but requires a response.” As a situation escalates, the potential for the public to be affected doesn’t necessarily increase due to redundancy measures.
“If they get to the last level, or the highest level of emergency, it [still] shouldn’t be at the point that it’s affecting the public. It’s still very serious, and lots of actions will be taken outside of the plant, but it hasn’t gotten to the point of radioactive material getting out of the plant.”
Burnell said, hypothetically, if a plant was hit by a tornado and the connection to the grid was lost— with no power on and no connection the grid— emergency diesel generators would power on, and the situation would automatically be declared an emergency event.
If one of these diesel generators were to stop working some redundancy would be lost, and the event would move up to an alert.
At this point, if a safety system were to stop working, but other safety systems were still running, the event would escalate to a site-area emergency, which doesn’t affect the surrounding community. This requires more co-ordination with emergency response agencies, and depending on how the plant has set up its emergency guidelines, “you could even see recommendations to the state to maybe shut down local parks, or beaches … public gathering areas, so that people will be moving out of the way well ahead of time.”
If this event were taken to an extreme, and the diesel generators and safety systems were to fail, and if a pipe were to break within the reactor, there would be the potential for the loss of coolant from the reactor. Even in this situation, there are still safety systems, but a barrier between the radioactive material and the outside environment has been lost.
“There are still barriers left, but things have progressed,” explained Burnell, adding, “That’s the point that you could see a plant moving to a general emergency. Even though nothing has made it to the environment, since the potential exists, you’re now at the point [where] material may be getting into the environment.”
Burnell explained that at this stage, you would expect to see recommendations to evacuate the immediate vicinity of the plant, and a little further away downwind.
“The whole idea is, if a plant trips one of the requirements to go to an emergency level, that’s done with the expectations that the actions taken are going to be done well ahead of any potential impact to the surrounding community, or environment.”
Town of Amherstburg fire chief Randy Sinasac explained there is a nuclear component to their emergency plan. What makes Amherstburg unique is that it doesn’t have a nuclear plant within its own boundaries, but rather, another country.
Sinasac explained that the primary purpose of the emergency plans is to put in place the tools to “address issues directly from Fermi, so that we can assess the situation in a timely fashion primarily about evacuation.”
Amherstburg has numerous measures in place to ensure that its residents are kept safe in the unlikely event of an emergency: evacuation centres, notification tools to alert the public, an emergency siren system (tested monthly), reverse 911, and a registry system for handicapped or mobility challenged people.
For Sinisac, there isn’t a lot to do other than knowing emergency procedures and following instructions. “You can’t practice an evacuation … you can make people aware that they have to follow specific instructions, and that certain things should be done, and certain things shouldn’t be done.”
Sinisac explained that if a nuclear emergency was declared, parents shouldn’t be picking up their kids from schools. “We don’t want 500 parents rushing to the school [the children] will be taken care of.”
“If you don’t have a plan in place, frying to utilize an evacuation can get very complicated, very fast, if you don’t address those issues.”
Jon Liedtke was the Features and Opinions Editor, Advertising Manager and Deficit Consultant at the UWindsor Lance.