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If we haven’t recovered by now, we never will. A special report.
(Page 3 of 4)
The confusion in the operating room was mirrored by the lack of communication within the industry itself. The pilot relief valve, whose malfunction set off the Three Mile Island accident, had failed nine times previouslyat other reactors, including once at Toledo’s problem-plagued Davis-Besse Reactor only a few months before. Yet none of the utilities communicated with each other and the manufacturer, Babcock and Wilcox, had not deemed the malfunction worthy of anybody’s attention. As the Kemeny Commission, which investigated the accident, finally concluded: “[G]iven all the above deficiencies, we are convinced that an accident like Three Mile Island was eventually inevitable.”
Safety and operating procedures at nuclear reactors have improved immeasurably. Prodded by both a draconian Nuclear Regulatory Commission and an outraged public, the industry began healing itself. INPO — the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations — a voluntary, industry-run operation in Atlanta, was set up to supervise and develop safety procedures. Although funded by the utilities, INPO remained independent and was given wide latitude in overseeing and inspecting reactor operation. The utilities were more than willing to cooperate. One more accident and they knew every reactor in the country would have to close down. As one executive put it, “We are all hostages to each other.”
The philosophy of reactor operation changed completely. The original premise had been that the technology was too complicated for ordinary human beings but the engineers who designed reactors were such geniuses they could build them so no human being could possibly foul them up. Early operators were high school graduates. Indeed, the Three Mile Island accident occurred when the operators misread several signals and overrode safety measures that were preventing the meltdown.
Now things changed completely. Operator training became a five-year regimen more demanding than that of airline pilots. Five years experience in the Nuclear Navy — where a lot of operators get their start — barely got you in the door. Trainees now sat in classes for ten months before ever touching a valve. Then they did a two-to-five year apprenticeship in the control room before they could begin their licensing courses. They would then spend another 14 months on the job and in the simulator before taking the NRC-administered exam. Only then could they become licensed operators.
A simulator was required at every reactor. These were detail-by-detail duplications of the actual control room, serving both as classroom and laboratory for continuing research. Even after they have finished their five-year training, licensed operators are required to spend one week out of six in the simulator honing their skills and refining their knowledge of the plant. ”We’ve made equipment changes in the real plant based on things that happened right in this simulator,” says Mike Goskamp, who supervises training at Vermont Yankee. As a result of all this, reactor operations slowly improved over the 1980s and 1990s and there were no more serious incidents.
Things didn’t really take off, however, until a group of new merchant energy companies entered the field in the mid-1990s. Deregulation of the electrical industry had suddenly turned most of the nation’s 100-or-so reactors into “stranded assets” — white elephants that were costing the utilities so much money it would make them incapable of competing in an unregulated market. Then Southern Utilities and Chicago’s Commonwealth Edison, which had both improved their nuclear performance, decided to set up subsidiaries that would start buying distressed reactors.
“At the time, reactors were running at about 60 percent capacity, which was the standard for the industry,” says Gary Taylor, CEO of Entergy. “It was a holdover from the coal days. You would shut them down every two weeks or so to give the boiler a rest. But we had some Navy guys on board who said, ‘We run these reactors for five years at a time in the Navy. Why can’t we do that here?’
“We soon found that most shut-downs had nothing to do with the nuclear side. It was the electrical equipment that kept breaking down. A turbine would trip or a wire would short out and you’d be offline for a few days. We started paying much more attention to this stuff and concentrating on keeping the plant up and running.”
Soon capacity factors — the portion of time the reactor is up and running — began to creep up toward 80 percent — unprecedented for the utility industry. Safety records improved correspondingly. “The more we paid attention to little things, the better these reactors ran and the better they ran, the more we could afford to pay attention to little things,” says Taylor.
Refueling operations — which usually took three months and were regarded as a vacation by plant employees — became carefully choreographed operations taking three weeks and planned years ahead of time. Maintenance operations were scheduled to coincide with the shutdowns. Soon Entergy and Exelon had special teams touring the country to supervise refueling operations. The companies also set up special safety teams that can be dispatched to a reactor site at a moment’s notice. “These days if a reactor incident occurs anywhere in this country, the whole industry knows it within a half-hour,” says one executive.
By 2000 capacity factors were climbing toward 90 percent and reactors were running for 18 months without going offline. In 2002 the whole industry went over 90 percent and has remained there since. In the decade from 1998 to 2008 only one reactor — the infamous Davis-Besse — has shut down for more than a year because of safety problems. In the previous ten-year period 23 reactors had yearlong shutdowns and there were 22 in the decade before that.
America’s fleet of 104 nuclear reactors now runs at a level of safety and efficiency unprecedented in any industry. Reactors now run for nearly two years without interruption. The record — 688 straight days — is held by Unit 1, Three Mile Island, the one that didn’t melt down.
New construction is needed if this record is to be maintained. The only looming threat to this stellar recover is our failure to continue with the technology and build new reactors. The American nuclear industry has atrophied to the point where barely exists. Babcock and Wilcox has decided not to design any new reactors but will only maintain the ones it has already built. Westinghouse’s Advanced Pressurized Boiling Water Reactor is a strong candidate for new construction, but the company was bought by Toshiba in 2006. On the other hand, General Electric’s Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor (ESBWR) has fared poorly in Nuclear Regulatory Commission reviews and the last American manufacturer may be about to drop out of the business. Areva, the French giant, is now the major competitor in the American market.
This decline is reflected in the engineering profession. A whole generation of nuclear engineers and nuclear scientists eventually dropped out of the field because they saw no future in the field and because they got sick of trying to explain their profession to skeptical friends and relatives. There is hardly anyone in the nuclear industry these days under age 50 and this generation will be retiring soon. If their accumulated wisdom is to be passed on, we must have a revival soon.
Operating performance has improved so much that more than half the country’s reactors have successfully applied to have their licenses extended for another twenty years. A few of these renewals, however, are approaching a danger zone. The Oyster Creek Reactor in New Jersey, for instance, the oldest operating reactor in the country, is now scheduled for an NRC relicensing decision in April. Completed in 1969 under a much earlier technology, the reactor is showing its age. Ideally, it would be shut down and replaced by a new one. Under present conditions, however, this is next to impossible. Oyster Creek provides New Jersey with 60 percent of its electricity. Shutting it down would cripple the New Jersey economy and make a mockery of Governor Jon Corzine’s grandiose plans to power the state with wind and solar facilities.
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