How We Lost Detroit: The Fermi Nuclear Disaster

Discussion in 'Alternate History Discussion: After 1900' started by dartingfog, Dec 24, 2018.

  1. dartingfog Professional cynic

    Aug 4, 2015
    It stands out on a highway
    Like a creature from another time.
    It inspires the babies' questions,
    "What's that?"
    For their mothers as they ride.
    But no one stopped to think about the babies
    Or how they would survive,
    And we almost lost Detroit this time.

    -"We Almost Lost Detroit" by Gil Scott Heron

    Imagine: Detroit as a vast, abandoned wasteland…

    Okay, so it already is, but even more so than OTL! :D

    The partial meltdown of the Fermi 1 plant near Detroit, Michigan occurred in OTL on October 5, 1966. Without getting too technical, Fermi 1 was an experimental breeder reactor. In addition to producing power, breeder reactors make nuclear fuel. Fermi 1 used liquid sodium as a coolant (unlike most atomic plants, which are water-cooled reactors). The partial meltdown of OTL occurred when a small piece of metal broke off inside the reactor, which blocked the sodium coolant, and caused several fuel rods to melt. Fortunately, the plant operators were able to shut down the reactor and no radiation was released to the environment (though the reactor was never reactivated). [1]

    But what if the reactor had gone into full meltdown?

    The meltdown of Fermi-1 near Detroit was considered on this very site 2 years ago (Half of the posters have since been banned. Sad!):

    The premise of this scenario is covered in We Almost Lost Detroit by John G. Fuller. Cool book, but it has its issues, as explained by @asnys:

    So based on that, I’m taking Fuller’s predictions about what could have happened with a big grain of salt (and a potassium iodide pill). Despite the book’s flaws, it’s important to note that Fuller wrote his book more than 10 years before Chernobyl, so I think it’s fair to say that he was not entirely wrong about the potential dangers of nuclear power. Even UAW leader Walter Reuther believed the threat was serious enough to challenge the construction of the plant before it was built.

    I did not rely on Fuller’s book alone. One source was a series of articles about the incident written by reporter Chester Bulgier of the Detroit News in November 1968, 2 years after the accident. Another major source was a technical report about the effects of a meltdown at the Fermi plant from the University of Michigan in 1957 [2]. There was also a rebuttal to Fuller's book entitled We Did Not Almost Lose Detroit, which was written a Detroit Edison employee named Earl M. Page (of course, working for an electric company that operates a nuclear power plant might just make one a wee bit biased in the other direction).

    As a disclaimer, I’m neither a nuclear physicist nor an anti-nuclear activist. If operated safely, nuclear plants are generally better for the environment and human health than coal-fired plants and produce more energy than wind or solar power. Today’s nuclear power plants are far safer than the early plants (partly because of what has been learned from mistakes made in the 50s and 60s). Unlike Fuller, I’m more interested in exploring the social and political effects of a nuclear meltdown. But I’ve tried to take a “hard science” approach to the accident and to document the realistic effects of a full meltdown.



    [1] A good recent summary of the 1966 Fermi accident was published by the Detroit Free Press:

  2. Unknown Member

    Jan 31, 2004
    Corpus Christi, TX
    The line "Take him to Detroit!" from Kentucky Fried movie is a lot less funnier ITTL...
  3. riggerrob Well-Known Member

    Sep 11, 2014
    How far would fallout travel?
    Would it render the Ohio industrial heartland uninhabitable?
  4. Catsmate Well-Known Member

    Aug 10, 2008
    Not in the Real World. Most probably scenario dumps most of the HRF products over Erie and into Canada with a tiny number of human casualties.
    Radiophobia induced panic however...
    Chris Triangle and Johnrankins like this.
  5. S. Marlowski Writer of an upcoming fantasy series

    Aug 22, 2018
    Backwoods of Wisconsin
    This is America's Chernobyl right?
  6. marathag Well-Known Member

    Feb 2, 2013
    Fermi 1 melted 1% of the Core before shutdown, and you could never get a steam explosion from a Sodium Reactor, or the burning graphite moderator like Chernobyl

    Three Mile Island melted half of its core, but containment worked in containing that.

    most of the core was assumed to have melted down, but exact percentage? nobody knows, as melting has never stopped.

    google on elephant's foot Chernobyl
  7. dartingfog Professional cynic

    Aug 4, 2015
    This is already getting a lot responses! To address your comments/questions:

    This should become clear later on, though the short answer is no. There would still be adverse environmental effects in Ohio, however.

    Yes, Fermi is quite different from Chernobyl and it is impossible for a steam explosion to occur, because Fermi was not water-cooled.
  8. dartingfog Professional cynic

    Aug 4, 2015
    Detroit in 1966

    "Frequently called the most cosmopolitan city of the Midwest, Detroit today stands at the threshold of a bright new future…" [1]

    -Mayor Jerome Kavanaugh, Detroit: City on the Move, 1965

    In 1966, Detroit was a thriving and prosperous American city. It was the center of automobile manufacturing in the United States, home to four large companies: General Motors, Ford Motor Company, Chrysler, and American Motors. Detroit was also the fifth largest city in the United States and one of the wealthiest cities per capita. This was accomplished largely because of the efforts of the powerful United Auto Workers union, a champion of labor (well, at least White labor).

    Not only was Detroit the Motor City, it was the Music City. Detroit was the center of the Motown sound, founded by Berry Gordy. Popular artists included the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Marvelettes, the Miracles, the Supremes, the Temptations, just to name a few. Many Motown hits topped the charts in the 1960s.

    Politically, 1966 was shaping up be an eventful year in Detroit, as well as the entire state of Michigan. Two high-profile elections were of particular interest to the voters. Incumbent Governor George Romney, a Republican, would face challenger Zolton Ferency. In the Senate, Republican Senator Robert P. Griffin would be challenged by former Governor G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams (who won a heated primary against Detroit mayor Jerome Kavanaugh early in the year).

    But not all was rosy for the city. Detroit had lost several hundred thousand people since 1950, mostly to the suburbs. White flight, as it was called, was the exodus of middle-class White people into the newly-built suburban sprawl around the city.

    There were also increasing racial tensions within the city. Despite advancements made possible by the Civil Rights Act, Detroit's Black residents remained socially and economically marginalized. Neighborhoods remained segregated, and police brutality was rampant. In response, Black Detroiters were becoming increasingly militant and the Black Power movement gained popularity. In August, violence erupted between police and Black residents on Kercheval Street, on the city’s east side.

    And, like the rest of the country, the Vietnam War was taking a heavy toll. Every week, several local young men killed in battle appeared in the obituaries of the local newspapers. Demonstrations against the war took place at Wayne State University and University of Michigan, in nearby Ann Arbor.

    Detroit was a metaphorical powderkeg about to explode. But no one could have anticipated the catastrophe that was about to strike. I’m referring to, of course, the Fermi Nuclear Disaster.



  9. marathag Well-Known Member

    Feb 2, 2013
    Without Steam able to rupture the Containment Vessel, I'm not seeing an opportunity for a large for radiation release. TMI has a very small release, and that was with half the core gone.
    The Sodium Reactor by Simi Valley was able to expel a bunch of radioactivity when 30% of its core melted, was because that POS didn't even have a proper Containment Building.

    I'm just not seeing the Detroit Reactor being able dump a massive amount of radioactivity out into the World
  10. dartingfog Professional cynic

    Aug 4, 2015
    While it's true that Fermi-1 had no steam in the containment vessel, a containment breach was possible. It would require a sodium vapor explosion or as a result of the fuel achieving a "critical configuration", which can happen under some circumstanes (explained in my next post).

    Also, although the Simi Valley reactor used sodium as a coolant, it was a liquid metal cooled reactor, not a breeder reactor. Breeder reactors are more volatile than the more conventional uranium fission reactors, and sodium-cooled breeder reactors are especially problematic due to the reactivity of sodium and their proneness to leaks.

    I found two articles that I think explain it well:
    Last edited: Dec 28, 2018
    Zagan likes this.
  11. rush4you Recent Polandball convert

    Feb 13, 2014
    I'd guess climate would be in a worse position than OTL, with an earlier and more widespread demonization of nuclear energy. This also means higher oil prices overall, giving a boost to the Soviet and Middle East economies.
    Draconis likes this.
  12. dartingfog Professional cynic

    Aug 4, 2015
    Now, in the next phase of civilian nuclear power development, we can look forward to advance converter and breeder reactors which will result in more efficient and economical use of our nuclear fuel resourcesI believe we can take heart from the fact that, twenty years after its inception, the nuclear age has not eliminated man -- in fact, it has imposed a greater discipline in his conduct. We can also be gratified that the atom has been used for peaceful and constructive purpose. In the years ahead we will continue to make the atom a source of man’s cooperation and progress. May the atom, as all science, be in time to become a tool for understanding ... for well-being …for betterment of the human condition.” – Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Nov. 15, 1965 [1]

    Report of the President’s Commission on the Fermi Nuclear Disaster
    Joint Committee on Atomic Energy

    October 30, 1969


    This report reviews the causes and consequences of the meltdown of the Enrico Fermi Nuclear Generating Station on October 5, 1966 near Monroe, Michigan, and 30 miles from downtown Detroit. Evidence of what occurred is fragmentary and based on the recollection of witnesses at the plant.

    The precise cause of the accident remains unclear. The most common theory is that a small metal object broke loose inside Fermi's reactor vessel, blocking the flow of sodium coolant. A coolant blockage would explain the increase in temperature that was observed in the core prior to the accident.

    Whatever the cause, the incident began at approximately 3:05 PM, when the operator, Mike Wilber, noticed that there were erratic changes in the activity of the reactor. He also noticed that the control rods (were used to control the nuclear chain reaction in the core) were further out than they should be. Just four minutes later, high radiation alarms sounded. Technicians found that the temperature of several fuel rod subassemblies had increased to 700 °F (370 °C). Automatic control devices detected that an elevated level of radioactivity was leaking out into the containment building [3][4]. About this time, the Monroe County Sheriff's Office and the Michigan State Police received calls from someone who claimed to work at the Fermi plant. The unidentified caller reported that there had been an accident at Fermi 1, but said that the situation should not be publicized. [5]

    At 3:20 PM, eleven minutes after the radioactivity alarm had gone off, the engineers decided to manually “scram” the reactor. Normally, performing a “scram” shuts down the reactor by inserting neutron-absorbing boron rods. This first attempt to “scram” the reactor put one of the control rods into place. However, the plant personnel were unable to reset another one of the control rods in the subassembly, which remained jammed 6 inches from the full “down” position [6]. Despite additional attempts to scram the reactor, the stubborn rod could not be closed down fully.

    By 4:15 PM, the temperature in the core had increased to 1,600°F (870°C), and the sodium inside the reactor began to boil [7]. About this time, Vice President and Assistant General Manager of the Power Reactor Development Company, Walter J. McCarthy, arrived at the plant from Detroit. Knowing that a full meltdown could destroy the reactor and release deadly radiation into the atmosphere, he immediately called a meeting to discuss options with other plant personnel, including Mike Wilber, Bill Olson, and Ken Johnson [8]. By this time, the melting had spread from the single plugged-up subassembly to several others, and molten, waxy uranium began to fall down through the core [9].

    At approximately 4:35 PM, just 90 minutes after problem was discovered, the temperature inside the reactor had increased to 2,000 °F, greater than the boiling point of sodium. The interior of the reactor had now degenerated into a molten mass of sodium and uranium [10]. Mr. McCarthy, Mr. Wilber, Mr. Olson, Mr. Johnson and several others made one last attempt to prevent the reactor from reaching criticality.

    Tragically, they were unsuccessful in this final attempt. An explosion destroyed the reactor shortly before 4:50 PM Eastern Time on October 5, 1966 [11]. These individuals are believed to have perished at that time. This devastating explosion ruptured the containment building and blew the 1,000-ton cap off of the reactor, releasing radioactive isotopes of cesium, strontium, and iodine into the atmosphere. After the destruction of the reactor, the remaining plant employees evacuated the facility.

    The explosion is believed to have occurred when molten core material had dropped on top of fuel that had melted and re-congealed [12]. The fuel reassembled itself at the bottom of the reactor, assuming a critical configuration. The fuel in the core then blew itself apart in a nuclear explosion, albeit one with less explosive power than a nuclear bomb [13]. When the congealed sodium inside the reactor made contact with the air, it instantaneously caught fire [14].

    Local authorities began to arrive at the plant at this time. The Monroe Fire Department tried in vain to put out the fire at the plant, but pouring water on the reactor only fanned the flames. After several firefighters began to show signs of radiation sickness, the fire was allowed to burn. Winds, blowing out the northwest, carried the contamination to the southeast, away from Detroit and over Lake Erie. [15]



    [1] Taken verbatim from a speech Humphrey gave in Washington, D.C. at the Nuclear Society-Atomic Industrial Forum on November 15, 1965.

    [2] Based loosely on this report from OTL about Three Mile Island:

    [3] We Almost Lost Detroit (WALD), p. 196-7: “Just a few minutes [later], at 3:05 PM to be exact, Mike Wilber noticed another problem. For the amount of heat and power that was coming out of the reactor, the control rods should have been raised only six inches out of the core. Instead they were a full nine inches out …Suddenly, as Wilber was standing in front of the temperature instruments behind the control panel, radiation alarms went off. It was exactly 3:09 PM.”

    [4] Detroit News (DN), Nov. 13, 1968, 1-F: “The operator noticed that the control rods, used to control the nuclear chain reaction in the core, were further out than they should be. At 3:09 pm, high radiation alarms sounded from the domed reactor building and the fusion product detection building. The operator began reducing the power and at 3:20 pm, he ‘scrammed’ the reactor manually, shutting it down by inserting the boron rods all the way.”

    [5] WALD, p. 2: “About the same time, some 100 miles away, Captain Buchanan of the Michigan State Police in Lansing was alerted by a similar phone call.”

    [6] Everything up to this point is as OTL. The POD rests on the behavior of a single stubborn control rod. WALD, p. 201: “And so, at 3:20 PM, eleven minutes after the radioactive alarm had gone off, the decision was made to manually scram the reactor…All the rods went down into the core normally, except one. It stopped six inches from the full ‘down’ position. This was no time to take a chance. A second manual scram signal was activated. The reluctant rod finally closed down fully.”

    [7] For a detailed technical description of what happens in a fast breeder reactor accident, read Breeder Reactor Safety: Modeling the Impossible by Charles R. Bell (1969), available here:

    [8] WALD, p. 201-2: “Walter McCarthy was in a conference in Downtown Detroit when it happened. He got a call from Bill Olson, the plant supervisor, who told him that there definitely was evidence of fuel damage, and that the containment building had been isolated with high radiation levels…Almost immediately after he arrived at the plant, McCarthy called a meeting. Every available key man of the Fermi team was there – Olson, Wilber, Jens, Amarosi, Johnson, and others…Alexanderson was to arrive later.”

    [9] WALD, p. 187: “If the coolant flow was ever blocked, McCarthy’s computations figured that the meltdown would not spread from the single plugged-up assembly…If it spread to others, there would be hell to pay. Some scientists were sure that if the melting spread to other subassemblies, the results could lead to disaster as molten, waxy uranium fell down through the core.”

    [10] As happened at the SL-1 reactor in OTL, a much smaller experimental reactor. WALD, p.34: “Nearly half of the core of the small reactor had melted, foaming and frothing as it did so. The temperatures had reached over 2,000o F - much more than the melting point of the fuel and the stainless steel cladding. The liquid sodium coolant had boiled over, pushing the uranium outward from the center of the core and blocking coolant channels. Partially melted rods had dropped into a molten mass below the core, forming ...a eutectic mixture.”

    [11] Bell, p. 107: “If a large fraction of the original fuel has managed to remain within the active core region, a super-prompt-critical excursion can occur that heats the fuel in milliseconds to high temperatures and pressures. The fuel in the core, in essence, blows apart. While the dispersal of the fuel terminates the neutronic excursion, the pressure surge poses a direct mechanical threat and the possibility of breached containment.”

    [12] DN, Nov. 11, 1968, p. 13-A: “'The worst accident we can conceive of’, says Walter J. McCarthy Jr. … ‘would be for half the core material to melt and recongeal in the space below, and then for the other half to melt suddenly and drop about six feet on top of it.’”

    [13] From a paper written in 2010 called It’s Time to Give Up on Breeder Reactors by Cochran et al.: Cochran et al, p. 53: “Furthermore, if the core heats up to the point of collapse and suffers a meltdown, the fuel can assume a more critical configuration and blow itself apart in a small nuclear explosion. Whether such an explosion could release enough energy to rupture reactor containment and cause a Chernobyl-scale release of radioactivity into the environment is the subject of major concern and debate.”

    [14] Cochran et al., p. 52: “Although sodium has some safety advantages, it also has some serious drawbacks. It reacts violently with water and burns if it exposed to air.”

    [15] The most detailed hour-by-hour weather data can be found for the Canadian station at Windsor, Ontario (about 25 miles northeast of the plant).

    At 5:00 PM, the temperature was 52o F (11.1o C), winds were 23 km/h out of the northwest, and the skies were mostly cloudy.
  13. dartingfog Professional cynic

    Aug 4, 2015
    Wednesday, October 5, 1966, 11:00 PM

    Channel 7 Nightly News

    Good night, Detroit. This is Bill Bonds [1] reporting. An explosion has been reported at the Fermi Nuclear Generating Station near Monroe. Eyewitnesses report that there was an explosion at the plant, causing a large fire. Local firefighters have been sent to battle the blaze. Several reporters have been sent to gather more information on this event.

    The authorities have assured us that all precautions are being taken and that no threat to the public exists at this time. Those living near the Fermi plant are urged to stay indoors and keep their windows closed. Michigan State Police are assisting in the temporary evacuation of residents living within one mile of the plant.



    [1] Local newsman and possible Ron Burgundy prototype. Note that this is six hours after the explosion at the plant, but news traveled more slowly back then.
  14. dartingfog Professional cynic

    Aug 4, 2015
    October 6, 1966

    Emergency proclaimed for Monroe County

    Yesterday’s explosion at the Enrico Fermi Nuclear Generating Station has prompted a state of emergency in Monroe County. Authorities have urged residents living near the plant to evacuate from their homes. Governor Romney has ordered a temporary evacuation of residents in Stony Point, Michigan, effective immediately. The Department of Public Health and the Michigan State Police will coordinate efforts to evacuate residents in an orderly and peaceable manner. [1]

    Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s visit to Monroe to dedicate the city’s new library has been cancelled [2]. His planned stop in Detroit this evening for a fundraising dinner has also been cancelled. Humphrey, who was scheduled to appear with former governor G. Mennen Williams and Zolton Ferency at the library this morning [3], was escorted from his hotel early this morning by Secret Service agents. He was hastily evacuated to University Hospital in Ann Arbor, where he was placed under observation. [4]

    Authorities stress that the evacuation is a precautionary measure and that the plant explosion poses no serious threat to public health. They assure us that the situation is under control [5]. Walker Cisler, President of the Power Reactor Development Corporation (PRDC) that operates the plant, says that there is little danger to Detroit and its suburbs because the “winds will blow the radiation to Canada.” [6]


    [1] WALD, p. 204: “There were a couple of public laws in Michigan, dating as far back as 1953…The Department of Public Health was named the official radiation control agency…The Department of State Police was designated as the coordinator of civil defense activities as if and when the governor proclaimed an emergency…The state of Michigan plan reads with simple eloquence: ‘In the event that an incident occurs which releases radioactive materials in concentrations that may be a public health hazard, this plan will be implemented. Implementation will commence by proclamation of an emergency by the Governor by the Director of the Department of Public Health.’”

    [2] WALD, p. 3: “About the only occurrence of public note that October 5 was that Hubert Humphrey... had arrived fifty-one minutes late at the Custer Municipal Airport.”

    [3] Detroit News, Oct.7, 1966, p. 18-A: “With Williams and Ferency at his side, Humphrey made a two hour stop in Monroe early yesterday to dedicate the Navarre Memorial Library and put in a plug for the re-election of Vivian, the area’s Democratic congressman. About 5,000 schoolchildren and townspeople turned out in the crisp October air.”

    [4] WALD, p.126: “Any victim receiving more than 25 rads, or with a contaminated burn, would be taken by ambulance to the University Hospital in Ann Arbor, about 20 miles away.”

    [5] This is consistent with the initial response to Three Mile Island from OTL 13 years later: “On Wednesday, March 28, hours after the core had collapsed into rubble, Lt. Gov. William W. Scranton appeared at a news briefing to say that Metropolitan Edison, the plant's owner, had assured the state that ‘everything is under control.’”

    [6] King Energy: The Rise and Fall of an Industrial Empire Gone Awry, p. 236
  15. EbolaMan131 Dick Pound 2020

    Jul 4, 2017
    This looks amazing! Will be watching this very closely
  16. Bookmark1995 Bookmark95 Reborn!

    Dec 26, 2016
    So will I.

    The amount of research you've put into this shows a good deal of realism, which I enjoy.

    Please continue.
  17. gatordad699 Well-Known Member

    Jul 3, 2013

    As a Nuclear engineer who has operated Navy and civilian reactors for several decades I find this highly implausible.

    This reactor was only 200 MWt and/or 69 MW electrical. Don’t know if it could have generated enough thermal energy to destroy the containment.

    What were the safety margins with one control rod all the way in and one 6 inches from the bottom?

    Wiki says that this reactor also had 8 safety rods. What happened to them?

    You state that they were trying to prevent criticality. Being critical means that the reaction is self sustaining. That is what it was when it was running. They were trying to make the reactor sub-critical.

    The biggest issue is your story is based on a nuclear explosion like a nuclear device. This is simply not possible. For melted fuel to flow to the bottom of a core and end up with a portion of it fissioning at exactly the same time is not going to happen. Chernobyl had a massive release of thermal energy. The reactor was generating more energy then could be contained. A nuclear explosion is just not possible in a power reactor.

    I would have tried a main coolant pipe falling off so all coolant runs out of core. Then all control rods and safety rods fail. Or a seismic event that does the above and maybe cracks the containment. Those are some of the worst case accidents that safety basis might be designed around.
  18. dartingfog Professional cynic

    Aug 4, 2015
    Thank you for your comment. Given your experience, I'll trust your judgment on it. But I'd like to continue on, so I want to avoid as much retconning as possible. Would a sodium vapor explosion been more plausible than an nuclear explosion? As I understand it, it wouldn't generate enough energy to rupture the containment.

    As for the safety rods, Fermi 1 had 7 safety rods and 2 control rods: I don't know whether inserting all of the safety rods and 1 of the 2 control rods would have been sufficient to shut down the reactor. Would it be possible for the safety rods to have been damaged as a result of the high heat of the reactor?

    Your coolant pipe idea sounds promising though. I will need to think about that one.
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  19. CultBoy Well-Known Member

    Oct 26, 2007
    Gloucester, England
    Though I know very little about nuclear reactors beyond the basics. I'm enjoying this as it's something completely different. Keep up the good work.
  20. Carl Schwamberger Well-Known Member

    Dec 14, 2012
    Reading through this makes me think of a Double WI: had Detroit not been destroyed. What would it be like today? Would the US have a much more robust automobile industry?