Lessons from one 1971 near-disaster for the
future of nuclear power in the region

By Christian Ruhl

There are few remains of the Big Rock Point Nuclear Plant; only a spent fuel storage facility is left at its former home on the bright blue shores of Lake Michigan, near Charlevoix at the northern tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula. But before the plant was demolished in 1997, its giant, bluish orb once loomed over the shore, its faded exterior resembling the turquoise, almost Caribbean color of the water at the lake’s edge.

In a 1962 promotional video for Big Rock, titled “Headstart on Tomorrow,” a young Ronald Reagan described the big sphere as “the new shape of a new kind of plant.” “Inside,” he continued, “is the equipment for a new technology: nuclear power.” After the film’s title credits, superimposed over an eerie, light blue Cherenkov glow emanating from the submerged reactor, the film switched back to Reagan, who continued his performance: “The stage, the screen, and television often bring you stories of high adventure, fast moving action, and powerful drama. Right now, I’d like to bring you a different kind of story. In its own way, it’s just as dramatic as anything a writer could dream up.”

That quote aptly describes a story that would take place in the skies over Big Rock nine years later, in 1971. By that time, our narrator, having switched careers, was just beginning his second term as governor of California. On January 7, 1971, at 6:33 p.m. local time, a B-52C “Stratofortress” nuclear bomber vanished over Lake Michigan.

Stories about nuclear history tend to take place somewhere in the American Southwest, in secret cities in New Mexico, the wasteland of test sides in Nevada, or classified military installations elsewhere in the desert and mountains. The Rust Belt and the Great Lakes region, however, hold their own stories of nuclear promise and disaster. This little-known tale of a nuclear power station on the shores of Lake Michigan holds valuable lessons for the future of nuclear power in all of the United States.

At 6:33 p.m., a fireball appeared in the sky near the Big Rock plant.

It’s not easy to find information about the 1971 crash, but Rick Wiles, a local historian in Petoskey, Michigan, laid out the essential details in a 2013 article for the Cheboygan Daily Tribune.

The B-52C had started its practice bomb run that day just before 2 p.m., when it left Westover Air Force Base near Springfield, Massachusetts to fly “Oil Burner” route 9 (OB-9) and practice dropping nuclear bombs over America’s industrial heartland. To simulate its deadly missions, the Air Force had developed a technology known as Radar Bomb Scoring (RBS). Using radar signals sent back and forth between the plane and a ground crew, RBS allowed America’s Strategic Air Command bombers to practice dropping bombs from low altitude without carrying live nuclear weapons.

Just after 6 p.m., the B-52 hit its first two targets—labeled Echo and Foxtrot—in northern Michigan. The ground crew in charge of the Radar Bomb Scoring run rated both as a success. By 6:32pm, the plane had bombed all but one of that day’s targets. Only target Charlie remained. Within moments, the bomber was supposed to “hit” this final target. Light snow was falling. Then, the ground crew lost contact with the plane.

At 6:33, a fireball appeared in the sky near the Big Rock plant. One local resident described the explosion to the Petoskey News Review: “the scene was like that of a sunset reappearing from a cloud cover. The entire sky was lighted up.” The sun had set over an hour before, but the explosion made another resident think of the sunset, until she realized that was impossible: “the sun doesn’t set in the northeast.”

The first-ever nuclear explosion in Nevada on July 16, 1945, “the day the sun rose twice,” had inspired eerily similar solar comparisons. As J. Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the atomic-bomb-building Manhattan Project, witnessed the test, he recalled a verse from the Bhagavad Gita:

“If the radiance of a thousand suns
were to burst into the sky
that would be like
the splendor of the Mighty One.” 

Back in northern Michigan in 1971, the Air Force scanned the skies, the Coast Guard searched the lake, and joint patrols combed the beaches of Lake Michigan on foot and snowmobile. Heavy snow hampered the effort to find the bodies of the bomber’s nine missing crew members. The military found only scraps of the plane.

On January 11, a private salvage company took over the search of the lake. The firm, Ocean Systems, operated at the cutting edge of deep-sea salvage in the 1960s and 70s, and had recently successfully recovered two bodies from an Atomic Energy Commission plane crash in Lake Mead, Nevada. Ocean Systems was formed in 1965 in partnership with Jon Lindbergh, son of the famous aviator (and infamous isolationist and anti-semite) Charles Lindbergh. Jon was himself a record-breaking diver. Ironically, his company was known for salvaging crashed planes. But in Lake Michigan, they found no bodies.

B-52 Bomber - Eugene Vidocq

The B-52 Model C 54-2666 bomber that crashed into Lake Michigan. Eugene Francois Vidocq/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Later investigations determined that wing failure had caused the crash. The aged B-52C had been designed for high-altitude missions in the 1950s, not low-level bomb runs like the one over Lake Michigan; its wings were not built for the missions it was flying, and gave out. Had the bomber’s strained wings held out for just under a minute more, the plane would have crashed straight into the Big Rock nuclear plant. At the time, without further study, Big Rock and Air Force officials admitted that it was unclear whether the plant could have endured the heavy impact of a B-52C; it’s possible that much of northern Michigan would have become atomic wasteland. The Cherenkov-blue water surrounding the submerged reactor could have seeped into the waters of Lake Michigan, contaminating one of the largest sources of freshwater in the world.

The near-disaster of January 1971 appears like an “unknown unknown”—a risk so unusual we don’t even know that we don’t know about it. The term is commonly associated with the post-9/11 descriptions of Donald Rumsfeld, but the typology of knowns and unknowns had been a standard feature of the epistemology of the Cold War. In a 1982 article about the commercial airplane industry, The New Yorker used unknown unknowns, or “unk-unks,” to explain the phenomenon of metal fatigue, the cause of the B-52’s crash. “Sometimes,” the article explained, “an unk-unk is not discovered until crashes have occurred.”

Soon after the crash, the Air Force attempted to turn the unknown probability of a crash into the Big Rock plant into a known one by quantifying the risk of its simulated bomb runs. In April of 1971, the Air Force conducted a risk analysis to estimate the probability that a B-52 would crash into the plant. It determined that probability to be 1.5 in ten billion.

In fact, the risk had not been a true unknown unknown before the crash. Big Rock’s insurer had worried about the possibility of a crash before it even occurred, and put a price on it. For years, workers in the nuclear plant had complained about the overflights, and op-eds in the local newspaper frequently mentioned the community’s concern. In December 1970, mere weeks before the crash, Gerald Ford, then a Michigan congressman, sent a letter to the Air Force asking that the low-altitude bomb run training over Big Rock be stopped and Oil Burner 9 rerouted. He noted that the plant’s insurer had finally became so concerned about the flights that it had raised Big Rock’s rates.

Later in the decade, during the Carter administration, marked by an oil shortage and peace negotiations, “Oil Burner routes” became “Olive Branch” routes. In 1981, the suave narrator from Big Rock’s promotional video became President Reagan, “the Great Communicator.” The generators at Big Rock Point hummed on. Finally, in August 1997, as Alzheimer’s was attacking Reagan’s brain, nuclear scientists shut down the chain reaction at Big Rock. It was time for one of the oldest nuclear power plants in the country to retire. The event was marked by a ceremony, one thousand attendees strong, celebrating the power plant’s life. Since then, for more than twenty-one years now, the spent fuel canisters have remained on the shores of Lake Michigan, guarded day and night.

Part of the reason for the public’s skepticism about nuclear energy lies with the extreme secrecy of the nuclear power sector.

Now, these canisters may be shipped to a nuclear waste storage facility in New Mexico, where they would join up to ten thousand other spent fuel containers from around the country. Halfway between Carlsbad and Hobbs in New Mexico, Holtec International’s proposed HI-STORE Consolidated Interim Storage Facility would store Big Rock’s nuclear waste on an “interim” basis. In the tortured language of the project’s website, this apparently means several hundreds of years, until the technology for permanent storage repositories has developed: “The decision on the approach to deal with the used fuel stored at HI-STORE over the long term can be made at a later date after the needed technologies to deal with them have reached sufficient maturity.”

Holtec—which now owns the Big Rock property—and its partners assert that “this proposed Holtec interim storage facility is the safest, most secure and robust storage facility in the world.”  But even the many opponents of the storage facility have not pointed out the two thin gray lines that run through the southeastern corner of the Federal Aviation Administration’s VFR chart 102 of New Mexico. Two Military Training Routes (MTRs), previously known as Oil Burners and Olive Branches—the same kind of low-level overflight routes that B-52s routinely made over Big Rock before the 1971 crash—run over the area between Carlsbad and Hobbs, the proposed site of Holtec’s interim storage facility.

I have repeatedly asked Holtec to comment on the nature of the risk posed by these training routes, but have received no response. Without knowing the probability of a crash into the storage facility, and without knowing whether Holtec has even considered the MTRs and conducted a risk analysis, it is impossible to say more about the possibility of a crash there.

Yet there are no obviously safer solutions to Big Rock’s problem of nuclear waste; few people want spent nuclear fuel to remain at the Great Lakes. A proposal by Ontario Power Generation to create a Deep Geological Repository (DGR) for nuclear waste more than twenty-two hundred feet under the surface of the earth, near the Bruce nuclear power station on the shores of Lake Huron, has received severe backlash. A bipartisan group of U.S. members of congress, including several from Michigan, stated in one letter that “permanently burying nuclear waste so close to the drinking water of nearly 40 million people is just too risky.”

Like Holtec, Ontario Power insists that the technology of Deep Geological Repositories is safe, and that the Great Lakes are not at risk of contamination. Nonetheless, there have been accidents with DGRs. In 2014, a waste drum exploded in a DGR, causing one of the costliest nuclear accidents in U.S. history. As it happens, this was in Carlsbad, New Mexico—near the proposed site of the new Holtec facility.

Big Rock Nuclear Power Plant - Eugene Vidocq

Big Rock Nuclear Power Plant on the shores of Lake Michigan. Eugene Francois Vidocq/Wikimedia Commons.

These risks inform the current debate over whether nuclear power deserves a lasting place in the battle against climate change. Proponents point out that nuclear power is one of the most low-carbon sources of electricity available, and that aging nuclear plants are now often replaced by cheaper but carbon-emitting natural gas, while critics say the expenses and safety risks of nuclear power outweigh the benefits compared to renewable power sources. (The recent proposal for a Green New Deal, for instance, calls for a “complete phase out” of nuclear power by 2030, though it does not give a reason for the abandonment.)

Part of the reason for the public’s skepticism about nuclear energy lies with the extreme secrecy of the nuclear power sector. Better-informed public debate would help to dispel fears about nuclear power and increase our ability to weigh the risk of worsened climate change against the risks of installations like the DGR or Holtec’s interim storage. But thus far, secrecy continues.

Should Holtec’s new plans near Carlsbad be approved by the relevant regulatory agencies and local city councils, Big Rock’s nuclear waste will leave northern Michigan through an undisclosed route. The canisters will be loaded onto a train, guarded by an armed team of security personnel, and carted from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt. According to Holtec, “the specific security capabilities” at the spent fuel’s final destination “are…not available to the general public.”

“Which brings us to an important point,” said Ronald Reagan in 1963. “There is nothing mysterious about an atomic power plant.” ■



Christian Ruhl is a graduate student at the University of Cambridge on a Dr. Herchel Smith Fellowship, where he studies international relations and the history of science. He grew up in Regensburg, Germany, and Buffalo, NY, and graduated from Williams College, in Massachusetts, in 2017.

Cover image: Aerial photo of the Big Rock Point Nuclear Power Plant. Nuclear Regulatory Commission/Public Domain.

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