When talking about work, Garrett Keel gets some unusual questions. A common one is: “do you glow?”
That’s because Keel works as a nuclear fuel handler at DTE Energy’s Fermi 2 nuclear power plant. That puts Keel in close proximity to the uranium fuel used at the power plant to boil water, make steam and produce electricity for southeast Michigan.
Keel played an important role during Fermi 2’s 18th refueling outage, during which, he and a team of co-workers replaced about one-third of the fuel in the power plant’s reactor. That refueling outage ended about four weeks ago.
Nuclear fuel consists of solid, ceramic-like pellets of uranium about the size of a pencil eraser secured in zirconium-alloy rods. These rods, which measure about 12-feet long, each hold approximately 375 fuel pellets. Ninety-two rods are arranged into assemblies — or “bundles” — that measure about 6-by-6 inches square.
Fermi 2’s reactor contains 764 fuel assemblies for a total of approximately 25 million individual uranium fuel pellets. Each pellet produces as much energy as one ton of coal.
That power is something Keel appreciates and respects.
“To move nuclear fuel, it is a huge responsibility,” he said. “The power in one of those bundles is spectacular to think about.
“And, for the record, no, we do not glow,” he added. Plant design and strict radiation safety practices protect plant workers, the public and the environment from radiation exposure.
Keel, 26, who lives about two miles from the plant in Newport, earned his associate’s degree from Monroe County Community College in nuclear engineering technology. He’s now enrolled at Wayne State University, where he is studying for his mechanical engineering degree.
He also underwent intensive training at a facility in California run by GE, a leader in the nuclear industry. There, he practiced fuel movements and other similar work done at nuclear power plants, in a life-sized simulator. At the facility, he earned his certification as a nuclear fuel handler.
“I’m confident in the process because I understand all that goes into moving fuel — the numerous checks and balances, the training, the oversight, the high standards we must apply to each and every action,” he said.
Keel said the radiation from the fuel is a serious matter. But radiation is well understood by the professional technicians at the plant: It is tightly controlled, monitored and exposure is very strictly regulated by both the company and the federal government.
“When we are in the field, we are 100 percent focused on the task,” he said. “Our top priority, our No. 1 job is to protect the health and safety of the public. We take that responsibility very seriously.”