07/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

We Almost Lost Detroit: Round Two

After months of watching the slow motion corporate meltdown of two of Detroit's once fabled Big Three carmakers, and the accompanying loss of high paying jobs associated with building cars, some worry that another kind of meltdown could occur if Michigan becomes one of the early adopters of a new round of nuclear power plants, a move critics say is not only dangerous but economically foolhardy.

Proponents of the proposed plant would like it to be built on the site of the Fermi I and II nuclear reactors, just down the road from Detroit in Monroe, Michigan, John Dingell country. The backers usually fail to mention that the area's first reactor suffered a partial fuel meltdown in 1966 that inspired a book and a song titled, "We Almost Lost Detroit."

The seriousness of the fuel melting that could have left the region uninhabitable, supposedly prompted one of the engineers investigating the accident to describe the possibility of the super heated core boring a hole deep into the earth's crust -- what became known as the "China Syndrome."

Today's China Syndrome has to do with what Ross Perrot once described as the "the great sucking sound" when talking about jobs leaving the US for the land of low-cost production. China, Korea, India, Japan, Eastern Europe and Russia are becoming the new kings of the auto world and many of Detroit's once fabled factories are mere skeletons that provide scrap steel and tooling for the inheritors of what used to be called the "Arsenal of Democracy." This grim but familiar tale has meant that Michigan has lost over 700,000 jobs since 2000 and seen a decline in population every year. This came on top of the severe job losses and population loss from 1979 to 1983, when the state witnessed the exodus of nearly a half-million people in four years.

This economic and population tsunami has brought with it a reduction in the number of schools, businesses such as dry cleaners, restaurants and car washes, and in the State that gave America the mall -- even malls and prisons.

Flint, Michigan and Detroit are looking at shutting down areas of the cities because depopulation has meant they can't provide services to many sparsely inhabited neighborhoods.

It's hard to imagine that the devastated industries and the dwindling population are crying out for more sources of energy. This hasn't stopped DTE Energy (formerly known as Detroit Edison) from throwing its hat into the ring of utilities seeking a license for a new nuclear reactor.

DTE's President, Gerard Anderson, told the Monroe News, "We're actually planning for our softest two-year period in the post-World War II era."

In spite of its own dismal economic forecasts the company has filed a license request with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for the Fermi III reactor that could cost over $10-billion. Because of the high cost, safety concerns and still unresolved questions about what to do with the nuclear waste the plants create, Wall Street has shied away from underwriting any new nuclear power plants since 1978. To overcome the financing obstacle the Federal Government started offering loan guarantees in 2008 designed to stimulate the building of 14 new nuclear power plants and utilities in Georgia and Florida have won approval to "pre-bill" customers for plants still on the drawing boards. After rates went up $11.42 a month per 1000 kilowatts of usage, citizen outrage forced Florida's Progress Energy to scale back the nuclear surcharge to $3.62. Which it's trying to double this year even though ground breaking on the plant has been pushed back at least 20-months.

Back in Detroit, a coalition of seasoned anti-nuclear activists is trying to put the brakes on DTE's plans. They have filed 14 contentions with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, seeking to intervene in the licensing process.

"For starters, this plant is not needed and we're prepared to demonstrate that," said Michael Keegan of Monroe, a member of Don't Waste Michigan, one of the groups opposing the project. "Many concerned local residents don't want to play yet another round of radioactive Russian roulette," he said when asked about how people felt about building a new reactor on the site of the near disaster at Fermi I.

In addition to their concerns about another "China Syndrome," Keegan said, "there is no good way to dispose of the radioactive wastes and fuel the plant generates."

Cost and safety issues aside, the problem of what to do with nuclear waste has been one of the most cited arguments against the nuclear industry's revival.

Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) hopes to remove this roadblock when she offers an amendment to the Senate Energy bill that would establish a National Nuclear Energy Council and set up a mechanism to promote "recycling" or reprocessing of nuclear waste. She's asking the government to supply the Council with $20,000,000 a year for ten years to promote "increasing domestic manufacturing capacity and export of nuclear energy products." Murkowski's amendment would also provide matching funds for to underwrite the cost of building two nuclear waste "recycling" centers and authorize funding enticements for local governments to become hosts to the two "privately owned and operated" centers.

Up to 11 local governments would receive $1 million per year for three years just for submitting an application. Two of the lucky applicants would receive $6 million on singing an agreement, and $10 million a year while the facilities are being built. Once the waste starts arriving, the host cities would be paid $15 million a year or $15 million per metric ton up to $20 million. When the facilities eventually close, the cities would receive a $20-million payment. The bills for transporting the spent fuel to be reprocessed would be paid by the US Government.

There is nothing in the amendment to fund alternative energy sources or invest in the green jobs the Michigan economy and the rest of the United States so desperately needs. Michigan's governor, Jennifer Granholm, has been tirelessly working to bring in new energy jobs, like battery factories for hybrid vehicles and wind energy manufacturing to help to create a new economy for the future and reduce the State's dependence on the technology of the past.

Murkowski hopes to have her amendment brought to a vote on Tuesday (June 16, 2009) during hearings in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee upon which Michigan's Debbie Stabenow serves.

Keegan and his colleagues are urging people to call and write Senator Stabenow and other members of the Committee to tell them that we need to be, "diverting future US energy policy away from dangerous and expensive atomic power, towards clean, safe and affordable energy efficiency and renewable resources."

Let's not lose Detroit again.