A nuclear power plant probably isn’t what comes to mind when you think of a school field trip. But in anticipation of Nuclear Science Week, hosted in Ann Arbor this year from Oct. 21-17, DTE and The University of Michigan’s Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences (NERS) department organized a trip to the Fermi 2 Power Plant for students on Oct. 3.
Although the event was primarily attended by NERS undergraduate and graduate students, the opportunity to tour a working nuclear power plant was enough to pique the interest of non-engineers, including a communications major.
Located in a nature preserve on the shores of Lake Erie near Monroe, Mich., Fermi’s campus is gorgeous. The early morning arrival at the plant also meant that visitors were greeted by gorgeous views from the visitor center of the sun rising. After a presentation from Pete Dietrich, DTE’s Chief Nuclear Operator, attendees were split into groups for a tour of the plant.
According to Nuclear Science Week, the internationally recognized event is dedicated to spreading awareness about “how nuclear science plays a vital role in the lives of Americans – and the world.”
The event fit within the mission of Nuclear Science Week by showing off the inner workings of a nuclear power plant and placing a heavy emphasis on how Fermi 2 interacts with its southeast Michigan service area. Thanks to rigorous safety protocols, the plant is able to work around the clock to generate 20% of the power delivered to DTE’s customers — all with zero carbon emissions.
Most of the morning was spent learning about day-to-day operations in the plant. After suiting up in personal protective equipment, students experienced a nuclear waste cleanup simulation and practiced using a full body nuclear contamination monitor.
After a quick break for lunch, it was off to a tour of some of the plant facilities. The first stop on the tour was a scale model of Fermi’s campus and reactor core. There, Gordon Terry, a licensed nuclear operator trainee, explained the inner workings and layout of the plant. After, students learned about the refueling process that the plant undergoes every 18 months.
Throughout all of these presentations, plant workers placed emphasis on the steps the plant takes to ensure the safety of employees and the public. From the thorough reactor operator training to the numerous, redundant failsafe systems, it was clear that safety is a key priority at Fermi.
Nowhere was this more clear than in the control room simulator. This one-to-one, button-to-button replica of the actual control room exemplified how aware of the risk of nuclear power plant accidents the operators of the plant were. Brett Hasson, supervisor of nuclear operations training, walked us through the binders of checklists and protocols that licensed operators had to memorize to pass their rigorous licensing exams.
As impressive as DTE’s nuclear facilities were, the sizable environmental impact of DTE’s power plants on the environment can’t be overlooked. Although DTE has committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, its plan to do so relies on the implementation of novel technologies such as carbon capture and small modular nuclear reactors. As promising as these technologies are, they have yet to be successfully commercialized.
Instead of placing their hopes for a carbon-neutral future in unproven technologies, DTE could be investing more heavily in proven solutions like solar, wind and nuclear.
As our nation, and the world, faces the prospect of a global climate catastrophe, it’s clearer than ever that transitioning to renewable energy sources is a must. And as attractive as solar and wind power are, the fact of the matter is that nuclear power will need to remain a part of the conversation until other forms of renewable energy have the infrastructure necessary to deliver uninterrupted power to a power grid adapting to a growing population.
A common adage in the world of nuclear power is that it has had only three problems: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. These three nuclear disasters, as well as the issue of disposing of nuclear waste, have turned public opinion against this otherwise promising energy source.
In their tour of Fermi 2, DTE made a compelling argument for nuclear power. By inviting a group of customers (albeit a very select group) to interact with nuclear energy and see firsthand the steps taken to make nuclear energy safe and reliable, they were able to paint a picture of nuclear power that wasn’t a barbed wire enclosed radiation zone that spits out a disaster every 40 years.
Nuclear energy will be key in DTE’s plan to cut their emissions. But for nuclear to succeed, DTE, as well as other utility companies, must commit more resources towards interacting with the communities they serve to change the narrative surrounding it.
Staff Photographer Sam Adler can be reached at email@example.com.