Jeff Alson: What is Fermi 3 and why does it matter?

Monday, June 15, 2015Jeff Alson, Guest Contributor

We are now at a historic crossroads in southeastern Michigan of which many residents are unaware.

DTE Energy has proposed the construction of a new nuclear power plant, called Fermi 3, set to be located in Monroe. At over 1,500 megawatts, Fermi 3 would be the largest single nuclear reactor in the U.S.

This proposal is backgrounded by an awful financial and safety record for DTE nuclear projects. Its Fermi 1 plant operated only briefly before melting down in 1966 and closing in 1972, and Fermi 2’s construction cost ratepayers nearly $5 billion, about 20 times its original estimate.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently issued an operating license for Fermi 3, which means that DTE can legally begin construction. DTE has not yet decided to build Fermi 3 and is “keeping its options open,” but the key remaining step is for DTE to obtain Michigan Public Service Commission approval guaranteeing recovery of and profit on all expenditures associated with Fermi 3’s construction and operation.

Here are three reasons why building Fermi 3 would be a big mistake:



Press accounts estimate that Fermi 3 would cost $10 billion or more, but U.S. nuclear plants have historically suffered large cost overruns. Since Fermi 3 would be the first of its design to be built, the $10 billion estimate is especially likely to be inaccurate. Additionally, decommissioning costs for Fermi 3 aren’t part of the estimate, leading me to believe that Fermi 3 could cost as much as $20 billion. At $10-$20 billion, Fermi 3 would be, by far, the most expensive single construction project in Michigan history. At $5,000-$10,000 per DTE household, whether to build Fermi 3 is one of the most important financial decisions facing families in southeastern Michigan.


Climate Change:

Since nuclear power emits much lower life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions than coal or natural gas, a few high-profile environmentalists believe that we do not have a choice and must accept nuclear power to combat climate change. However, recent studies by the Department of Energy and Stanford show that with a more sophisticated electricity grid and greater use of electricity storage, a reliable and cost-effective low-carbon electric grid can be based on wind, solar, and efficiency. We do have a choice--we will either invest $10-20 billion in Fermi 3 or in renewables and efficiency. It makes no sense to adopt a risky climate strategy like nuclear when it is faster, cheaper and more reliable to rely on renewables and efficiency.



DTE has never mentioned Fermi 3 in its monthly billing statements to customers, and its website contains only a few short paragraphs, apparently written in 2008, that ignore the $100 million that DTE has already spent on licensing and the $10-20 billion it would spend to actually build Fermi 3. DTE apparently wants to make all of its decisions on Fermi 3 in secret, and keep ratepayers from having any input. If Fermi 3 is built, it will be “game over” for renewables and efficiency in southeastern Michigan. This is the time to let DTE and, more importantly, the Michigan Public Service Commission know that you prefer that your ratepayer dollars be invested in a renewable future, not a nuclear one.


Jeff Alson has been an Ecology Center member since the 1970s and was volunteer-of-the-year in the 1980s. He works on climate change issues for the U.S. EPA, but the views here are his own and do not represent those of the EPA. He is also a volunteer with the Alliance to Halt Fermi 3

Photo courtesy of Flickr user k.l.macke via Creative Commons

Published on June 15, 2015