DTE's Fermi 2 nuclear power plant down to replace rotor and refuel

Hayley Harding
The Detroit News

Fermi 2, the nuclear power plant in Monroe County is undergoing a powering down for periodic refueling and to replace a rotor, a spokesman said.

The plant closes every roughly 18 months or so for refueling and maintenance, said Stephen Tait, the nuclear communications manager at DTE Energy, which owns and operates Fermi. The shutdown will last a few weeks.

Tait said the specific length of time for the nuclear reactor, which serves all of southeast Michigan, wasn't available. The company does not disclose the duration because of "market considerations," he said.

Fermi 2 plant in background of the Detroit International Wildlife Refuge, which is on the lower Detroit River and west shoreline of Lake Erie.

During the shutdown at the plant in Newport, specialized teams work on different pieces of equipment in the facility. The biggest project during the shutdown requires teams to replace the rotor, which is part of the generator. The rotor is a key piece in the production of nuclear power, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which regulates nuclear facilities across the country,.

Electricity is generated when steam, created by boiling water from the hot nuclear reactions, spins the rotor. Fermi 2 provides about one-fifth of the power DTE generates, according to the company. When the plant powers down, which typically happens in cooler months when energy needs are lower, Tait said maintenance and replacement also are performed.

"We do maintenance on it any time it's down, to test the equipment and make sure it remains safe and reliable," Tait said. "You have to shut down to replace some of the fuel, and then our teams work in the places where there are pieces of equipment you can't get to while it's running."

Powering down during times when there is less demand on the grid is a standard practice across the industry. It helps ensure the company's other facilities providing electricity can keep up.

"It's a crude analogy, but it's kind of like how you can't work on your car while driving down the freeway," Tait said.

The teams that power down the plant are "highly trained operators" who shut everything off according to a controlled and orderly process, he said. The reactor slows down gradually before stopping completely.

For the recent refueling, the plant powered down completely Feb. 5. It will stay down until work is done and the plant is refueled.

Spent fuel is stored first in pools at the site, where it cools down in a secure area. After it has cooled enough, which typically takes a few years, it is transferred to sealed cannisters made of steel and concrete, also at the site. The containers are "robust," Tait said, a necessity to make sure no fuel leaks and people stay safe from nuclear waste emissions.

Teams practice the procedure in simulations. When it comes time to start the facility up again, it's a similar process that involves checking to make sure everything is operating as expected. As systems come back online, operators "raise power in a controlled manner and sync it to the grid," Tait said.

Safety is the primary goal, he said, adding that there are no specific community concerns about safety during a refueling. DTE typically will notify the Monroe News about changes, the local newspaper in the area, and local officials as well as officials for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Some people, though, are not convinced that safety can be assured. They also have concerns about the type of fuel being used at the facility.

Jesse Deer In Water, a community organizer for Citizens Resistance at Fermi Two or CRAFT, said his group hopes to see Fermi 2 closed. CRAFT members believe nuclear fission reactors are dangerous and could expose people to radiation. The group would rather see renewable power sources that do not result in radioactive waste or expose communities to possible problems.

While the plant is still operating, though, the group pushes for safer practices.

"We're worried about what new fuel means," he said, adding that some types of fuel used for nuclear plants are less tested than others.

Tait said while some the fuel in the process is relatively new, it's been used for several cycles at Fermi 2 and for several years across the industry.

"It's more efficient, very safe, very proven," he said.

The Department of Energy announced last week a program to provide $6 billion in credits to keep nuclear plants running. The program specifically targets reactors that may shut down "due to economic factors," the department said in its notice of intent for the program.

DTE is evaluating the program, Tait said, but the company does not see it as applicable to Fermi 2 and has no plans to apply at this time.

hharding@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Hayley__Harding