We Almost Lost Detroit, Remember?: Applied Anthropology and the Fermi–Fukushima Connection

Brian McKenna
University of Michigan-Dearborn

It stands out on a highway like a Creature from another time. It inspires the babies’ questions, ‘What's that?’ they ask their mothers as they ride” —Gil Scott Heron, “We Almost Lost Detroit” 1990

As the third anniversary of the Fukushima meltdowns comes upon us in March, it’s time to reflect on our own Fukushimas. In 1966 the Fermi nuclear reactor outside Detroit Michigan suffered a partial meltdown and came close to a nuclear explosion (Sovacool 2011, Fuller 1975). News of this event was kept from the public for several years. The story was fully revealed in the powerful 1975 book, We Almost Lost Detroit by investigative journalist John Fuller. If you question people on the streets of Detroit today few have any knowledge of the near cataclysm despite ample documentation. It’s as though it never happened.

When I question my students at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, just 30 miles from the melt-downed reactor, it’s the same reaction. Most know about Fukushima, although remarkably little, given its newsworthiness. So I remind them that on March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake impacted Fukushima resulting in billions in damage and crippling the Japanese nuclear industry. The catastrophe caused Germany to declare a three-month moratorium on its plan to prolong the life of its nuclear plants and shut down seven of its oldest facilities.

Not so in Michigan. In 2014, DTE Energy (formerly Detroit Edison), the corporation responsible for the 1966 Fermi meltdown, is pushing hard to upscale its nuclear capacity by building a Fermi 3 complex. It turns out that most UMD campus students I speak to don’t even know where their electricity comes from let alone the pros and cons of nuclear power.

“Can you imagine how professors at the local University in Fukushima must feel today if they had neglected to educate students about the dangers of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station before the accident?” I ask. Many colleges were funneling interns into the facility, no doubt. But how many were critically assessing the risks? “We are now those people. And in Detroit, which has already suffered a partial meltdown, risking tens of thousands of lives, there’s no excuse to ignore the issue.”

I then play them an 8 minute YouTube rendition of the mesmerizing Gil Scott Heron song about the epic close-call (Scott-Heron and his Amnesia Express 1990).

Nuclear Civic Engagement

And yet, few Michigan citizens or professors speak out, aside from a small contingent of dedicated activists. DTE Energy has great influence with Michigan institutions (including universities). The corporation has operations in 26 states and in 2013 was ranked 299 in the Fortune 500, with revenues of $8.8 billion.

In Barbara Johnston’s 2007 edited book, Half Lives and Half Truths, the decades-old silence within medicine and professional life (including anthropology) regarding nuclear catastrophes is duly noted. When scientists produced data that contradicted the official story they found themselves outcasts, discredited, or unemployed. The message: there are severe consequences for asking questions. The results are deplorable. As Johnston puts it, “control over scientific findings allowed the systematic use of half-truths to pacify public concerns while expanding the nuclear war machine.”

Johnston presents 14 case studies which challenge this silence. In one, Edith Turner reflects upon how she transformed from a traditional academic into what Johnston calls a “proactive scholar-advisor-advocate who works for and with her host community” (Johnson 2007:14). Turner eventually circulated in the corridors of power in Washington DC on behalf of her community. This is how applied anthropology becomes public pedagogy, a vital front of civic engagement in this age of enforced neoliberal passivity.  

Inspired by these anthropologists, I now begin this work through UMD’s Civic Engagement program. The program cites Paulo Freire as an inspiration, a fact I use to full advantage. The recentness of the Fukushima meltdown provides another pedagogical opening to cut through the silences in university life about the dangers of nuclear power. In the winter of 2012 I organized my Environmental Anthropology class of 40 into seven groups (of five to six members each) as part of a civic engagement with the local nuclear culture. They conducted field site visits to the outskirts of the Fermi complex and to Monroe, Michigan, the adjacent city. They interviewed experts, researched official data, made interpretations and delivered group presentations on their findings. I provide a synopsis of students’ 2012 findings below. I just returned to Fermi this semester, winter 2014. This time our partner is Keith Gunter, co-chair of Alliance to Stop Fermi 3. We are using several excellent books mostly by anthropologists (including Brown 2013, Gusterson 2004, Masco 2006, Stoler 2013). More on this experience will follow in a future article.

Nuclear Energy for Beginners

I find that it is necessary to provide an orientation to get students sufficiently motivated to engage the issue. I require Johnston’s book, in which she and her fourteen anthropology colleagues make abundantly clear that it’s not just the nuclear meltdown disasters but the cradle-to-grave circuit of nuclear production: (1) uranium mining (Navaho miners were especially hard hit with thousands of deaths), (2) uranium processing (there are 2.35 billion tons of radioactive “tailings” the crushed rock remaining after uranium extraction), (3) weapons development (as recently as 2001-2004 tens of millions of cubic meters of liquid radioactive waste was dumped into Russia’s Techa River), (4) testing (2,057 nuclear tests have occurred the world over spreading fallout far and wide), and (5) disposal (anthropologist Turner, astounded at a very high cancer rate in Alaska’s Inupiat community helped uncover a nearby radioactive dump site in the 1990s). The amount of illness and disease from thyroid cancer, leukemia, birth abnormalities and other conditions are far more extensive than previously thought. The anxiety of living next to a radiogenic site is permanently felt by millions.

I tell students that a nuclear reactor is merely another way to boil water to generate electricity (though many facilities can also produce weapons grade plutonium). Nuclear energy production is 44 times more dangerous than renewable methods like wind and solar. We view the film, Into Eternity (2012) about Onkalo, the world’s first permanent nuclear waste repository (available on the Internet). Onkalo is a Finnish word for hiding place. It is a very strong indictment about nuclear waste disposal. Fermi continues to be a very dangerous institution. Among the concerns is the fact that most of its nuclear waste is stored in 40-foot deep circular pools that are running out of room. DTE was supposed to transfer this high-level waste to dry storage years ago.

In the 2012 course, I contacted Kay Cumbow with Citizens for Alternatives to Chemical Contamination (CACC) and she agreed to serve as a historian/educator with my class. She put me in touch with Michael Keegan, Co-Chair, United States Coalition for a Nuclear-Free Great Lakes and leader of Don’t Waste Michigan, a group challenging Fermi 3. He addressed our class and served as valuable resource round the clock. Students reviewed the literature, investigated newspaper archives, conducted interviews, establish key informants, review government documents and worked closely with me and activists in developing research strategies and ideas.

Some Findings

One student, a journalist with the Michigan Journal, the campus newspaper, conducted a content analysis of all newspapers from 1963 to the present. He found not one critical story about Fermi. There was one story in 1991 about 18 students of the Society of Physics visiting DTE in the summer to learn how it produced electricity. “We are pleased the UMD students visited the Fermi 2 site,” said the senior VP of nuclear generation.

Several students noted that the most vigorous governmental critics of Fermi were state-level Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials who worked closely in the environment surrounding Fermi. In her site visit to Fermi one student interviewed a DNR Ranger at Sterling State Park. He said that Fermi had an enormously bad impact on the marshland there. He informed her that the DNR had just received a $2.85 million grant from the EPA to help restore the wetlands. They intend to restore 25 acres of high-shallow waters (“something that, he whispered, was mainly due to Fermi 2 pumping into the River basin”) and improve fish and wildlife lagoon habitat. She noted that the swimmers and fishermen she interviewed didn’t care. One camper in the park, when asked about the nuclear plant being so close to her children, said, “I don’t ever think much of it. I know it’s there. I can see it. But at the same time I almost never see it. It just blends in as I watch my kids swim.” The woman paused and then added, “I would be more concerned about a storm coming and electrocuting them than the water being polluted.”

Another DNR fieldworker was quite frank with another student. “The water temperatures have been rising yearly, and as a result the fish populations have been dwindling … migratory birds which we once saw in abundance are now a scarcity, and we are noticing a gradual increase in the amount of dead animals we find. But we should [close our eyes and apparently] believe DTE when they say there are no risks when it comes to nuclear power.” The student reported that the DNR fieldworker added, “What I really don’t understand are the citizens of Monroe. They have a cancer factory in their backyard yet they pretend like it doesn’t even exist. I feel like I am working in a town full of zombies at times.”

Popping the Nuclear Pill

According to medical experts, potassium iodide pills are to be administered immediately in the wake of a serious nuclear event to protect peoples’ thyroids. Local pharmacies within 10 miles of Fermi are required to provide the tablets free of charge to residents within that perimeter. However when students checked with local schools within that perimeter they found some schools that did not have them. One school official reported that the Monroe County Health Department had offered the school free tablets but that they declined. They said schools are required to have permission slips before any medical treatments are administered. Another student works as a pharmacy tech within a 50-mile radius of Fermi. When she asked her boss, the lead pharmacist, about the availability of the tablets for consumers, the pharmacist admitted that she had never heard of potassium iodide tablets before, and, in fact, had never heard of the Fermi nuclear power plant!

Karmanos, a major cancer hospital in the region, devoted much attention on its website about the dangers of radiation in the environment, focusing on radon and its sources. Incredibly, they made no mention of radiation emitting from the local nuclear facility. The student concluded, “Fermi is not seen as a health risk by [medical] people because it is not an obvious threat, you cannot see it coming, and so people do not have the concern that they should have over living so close to a nuclear plant.”

Another student asked a woman who lives within ten miles of Fermi about the evacuation plans. The informant said, “I’m so close. I wouldn’t have time to get out. I’d just be dead or else wish I was. The escape route is a joke. There’s only one little two-lane road going in and out, and you know, there’s a school back there. No parents will leave their kid behind. They’ll be heading back to the school and gumming up the roads. People won’t be able to get out as fast as they say.” This student interviewed another woman, who said she’d lived in Monroe for 14 years but only received the evacuation information one time, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.  

After speaking with several Monroe citizens, one group concluded that, “the overall consensus was that Monroe’s residents don’t seem concerned about Fermi, the health effects it may cause, or the potential for a nuclear disaster. In fact, many of the people that were consulted thought that we were ‘crazy’ for asking questions about it.”


Students felt that many environmental groups seem to have been “bought off.” A student reported that: “DTE has formed partnerships with many conservation, wildlife, fishery and environmental quality organizations. The plan for these companies is to do what’s called ‘greenwashing.’ The idea is to make it look as though these companies are environmentally friendly by really masking the threat that they are posing to the environment. It’s as if someone was beating you in the face while wearing a non-violence t-shirt.”

Another student met with an invitation only workshop on March 18, 2012, sponsored by several activist groups including Mike Keegan and our own classroom mentors with CACC and associated with “Stop Fermi Three.” Lois Gibbs, the Love Canal leader and founder the Center for Health, Environment and Justice spoke (Gibbs 2014). The student found that there “there are enough activists to stop Fermi 3 but they are not taken seriously.”

Erasing Collective Memory

Another civic engagement student performed a content analysis of DTE’s web based educational program for children, titled “DTEkids” (See DTEKids 2014). She found that it was dedicated to renewable energy and had many fun and interactive games for children to play on topics of solar energy, geothermal, wind and hydro. “Hi, I am Jay! Help your family plant a tree. It helps clean the air we breathe and saves energy too!” She noted that DTE focused attention on the “Family Emergency Supply Kit,” which listed things like canned foods, flashlight, water, first aid kits, and toys.” However, she noted that there was one thing on the emergency supply kit missing: potassium iodide pills. In fact, she noted that she was shocked that nuclear energy was not even mentioned. “It was almost as if nuclear energy was the elephant in the room that DTE refused to acknowledge,” she said.

In 2012 Detroit Edison won another battle. It worked behind the scenes to finance $2.9 million in a deceptive ad campaign by a front group named CARE, which succeeded in defeating Michigan’s Proposal 3 which would have required that Michigan obtain 25 percent of its energy from renewable resources (like wind, solar and hydro) by the year 2025. The front group, CARE, used the words clean and renewable in its name. Citizens were not informed that DTE and the nuclear industry were working to seek its defeat.

Yes, Fermi is an elephant in the room, even in the wake of Fukushima. Major Detroit area institutions reproduce this elephant by their actions and omissions.  

A hegemon of institutions—in media, universities, medicine, government, and the corporate world—function to erase collective memory via omission, neglect and a neoliberal ideology that favors nuclear power. In this vein, DTE is presenting a Clean Energy Prize as an annual entrepreneurship competition that challenges teams from colleges and universities in Michigan to develop the best plan for bringing new clean-energy technologies to market (ignoring its behind the scenes work to derail clean energy public policy). It is open to students and faculty from any Michigan college or university. There is no prize, however, to help restore the collective memory of how “we almost lost Detroit,” and the University of Michigan itself.


Alliance to Stop Fermi 3. http://www.athf3.org/

Cumbow, Kay (2012) Citizens for Alternatives to Chemical Contamination (CACC) http://www.caccmi.org/

Brown, Kate (2013) Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Don’t Waste Michigan (2014) http://dwmi.homestead.com/

DTEKids. http://www.dteenergy.com/kids/

Fuller, John G. (1975) We Almost Lost Detroit. New York: Readers Digest.

Gibbs, Lois (2014) Center for Health, Environment and Justice. http://chej.org/

Gusterson, Hugh (2004) People of the Bomb, Portraits of America’s Nuclear Complex. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press.

Into Eternity (2012) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O8uh9UNHbzA

Johnston, Barbara Rose, Ed. (2007) Half-Lives and Half-Truths, Confronting the Radioactive Legacies of the Cold War. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research.

Masco, Joe (2006) The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Scott-Heron Gil and his Amnesia Express. (1990) We Almost Lost Detroit.


Sovacool, Benjamin. (2011) Contesting the Future of Nuclear Power: A Critical Global Assessment of Atomic Energy. Hackensack, NJ: World Scientific Publishing Company.

Stoler, Ann Laura, ed. (2013) Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination. Durham: Duke University Press.