Nuclear Physics Gets a Boost from the IBEW

Scientists from across the globe may soon be uncovering the secrets of the universe, and they’ll have hundreds of IBEW members to thank.

That’s because IBEW electricians from at least seven local unions in Michigan and half a dozen signatory contractors have spent the last three years building the infrastructure for the world’s most advanced rare isotope accelerator, a powerful scientific instrument designed to provide researchers with access to short-lived atomic particles that are no longer found on earth.

Inside wiremen from Lansing, Mich., Local 665 and outside linemen from Grand Rapids, Mich., Local 876 played critical roles in preparing the 500,000-square-foot facility on Michigan State University’s campus, which was handed over for installation of the scientific equipment more than two months early at the end of March.

“This was a complete custom job,” said Local 665 member and general foreman for Superior Electric, Daren Bebee, who has been on the job at the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams since 2014. “A lot of what we did here had never been done before, or it had been done so infrequently that I like to say we’re now masters of a part of our trade that we’ll probably never use again.”

That’s because the FRIB, a $750 million partnership between Michigan State and the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, really is one of a kind. When it’s fully functional, expected in 2022, scientists will be able to direct a beam of atomic nuclei at half the speed of light onto a target, where the resulting impact will spawn the types of rare isotopes they hope to study. There is hope that the resulting research could impact everything from medicine to the next generation of nuclear reactors and the safe disposal of nuclear waste.

To achieve those results, the FRIB needs power, and lots of it. At its peak, the linear accelerator will draw 25 megawatts of power, nearly one-third of the total power consumption of Michigan State’s 1,000-acre campus. That’s where the members of Local 876 came in. Getting that much power into one building required new substations and switchyards and a massive underground effort to run cabling across campus.

Jeremy Dalstra, the general foreman for Kent Power’s line-side operation, said his crew of 13 worked for more than three months installing a double circuit of 4-inch diameter 138 kilovolt underground cable from the new substations to the FRIB. Local 876 member Chris Patterson, who served as general foreman for signatory contractor MJ Electric, said his crew worked 12-hour shifts nearly every day for two months installing the switchyard for the new substation. Members at Highdecker Electric were responsible for much of the conduit work on campus.

“There’s only one piece of equipment in the whole country that’s similar to what this one will be able to produce, so it’s a big deal for Michigan State and a big deal for those of us who got to work on it. We’re proud of what we did to get it the power it needs to run,” Patterson said.

With the power routed to the building, it was up to IBEW members working for signatory contractors Shaw Electric, Superior Electric of Lansing and Summit Contractors, to prepare the building for its eventual power-hungry tenant.

“The grounding system alone on this building is an incredible piece of engineering,” Bebee said.  His crew buried 28 copper ground rods 40 feet deep around the perimeter of the site. They also installed copper mesh throughout the concrete structure of the accelerator tunnel to help prevent electro-magnetic interference generated by the accelerator and its associated equipment. The concrete floor in the hot cell, a sealed room built to handle radioactive isotopes, is as much as 17 feet thick and the surrounding walls are up to 6 feet thick in the same area. They were filled with massive amounts of rebar, making the copper mesh installation a challenge.

“Our crew has really felt like an integral part of this project from the very beginning. We’ve worked with scientists from all over the world, balancing what they need for their research with how we can make it happen and do it safely at the same time. To say we’re invested in the FRIB’s success is a real understatement,” he said.Bebee’s crew also installed more than 27,000 feet of 6-inch rigid conduit to carry power and signals from the accelerator tunnel underground to the computer equipment above.

Speaking to the Michigan Building Trades magazine, Brad Bull, the FRIB’s conventional facilities and infrastructure division director, said, “We’re well ahead of schedule, and we couldn’t be happier with the quality of workmanship we have seen. The workforce has been amazing.”

At the project’s peak, more than 350 tradesmen were on site, including over 100 electricians. That number has steadily decreased as the project has wrapped up.

“I just can’t say enough about the incredible work done by our members here at Local 665 and down the road at Local 876,” said Local 665 Business Manager Tom Eastwood. “It’s always nice to have large-scale projects come along, but this one has been really unique. It’s put a lot of IBEW brothers and sisters to work, and it’s got the potential to leave a lasting mark on science and on this country’s technological future. We’re proud they chose the IBEW to get it done right and ahead of schedule.”