I Work In A Nuclear Power Plant: 5 Insane Realities
Thanks to the documentary The Simpsons, most of us think that nuclear power plants belch out poisonous gas, pour fish-mutating slime into our rivers, and are ready to melt down at the slightest provocation. We're barely exaggerating here -- multiple generations today owe all their knowledge on the subject to a wacky cartoon, and those fears might define the energy production of the world.
We had a sneaking suspicion that there might be more going on behind the scenes at these plants, and infiltrating them to investigate probably isn't an option. So we talked to Alex, an engineer at a nuclear plant in the Midwest. He told us that ...
The Guards Are Ready For War (And Prepare With Simulated Attacks)
Security at nuclear power plants is no joke. We're guarded by a small army, and I mean that literally -- it's men in fatigues with assault rifles, covered in body armor. They have hardened emergency positions to fall back to so they can repel an attack, as well as complex defense protocols that I can't share with the general public (partly for security reasons, and partly because they don't tell me). Most plants have firing ranges onsite so guards can hone their skills, but no shooting range can replicate the stress of fighting your way through an active industrial facility. To prepare for a full-on Call Of Modern Battlefield assault, they engage in force-on-force exercises, which are basically the best games of laser tag ever.
A team of guards gathered from other plants goes against a team of guards from the host plant. It is a firefight. Both sides are armed with laser guns, along with a system called MILES, which keeps track of where you get shot. Like to lean out from cover too much? Boom, headshot. You're out of the game (of life). Hiding behind a pipe that's a little thinner than you? Boom, knee cap. You best keep firing, though. You don't need a working knee to pull the trigger.
Once the laser dust settles, victory is declared. (By the defender, usually. Hopefully.) All the data, experiences, and laser injuries are reviewed to plan for the future. If a force large enough to overcome the guards turns up at the door, well, it's safe to say at that point that the country has bigger problems, since that would clearly be some kind of Red Dawn situation.
"But," you might be thinking, "what good would that do if terrorists crash a plane into the plant instead? Wouldn't that irradiate the whole state?" Well ...
Nuclear Plants Can Withstand Massive Damage
An airliner crashing into a nuclear reactor would result only in a big pile of twisted airliner parts scattered around the lawn and a fire that would look spectacular but do nothing to affect the reactor. This is because even the plants that were built in the 1960s were designed by people who knew they had to stand up to anything.
That's why the reactor, steam generating systems, emergency backup generators, all the safety systems, and the spent fuel storage areas are housed in some of the toughest structures mankind has ever built. We're talking four-feet-thick, heavily reinforced concrete. Some areas of the plant have a quarter-inch-thick steel liner. The reactor vessel is a nine-inch-thick steel vessel with a stainless steel liner. It's all designed to be the last thing standing in an apocalypse, to shrug off earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, fires, and yes, a direct impact from an airliner.
That last one isn't even as impressive as it sounds -- aircraft, by nature, are kinda flimsy. They're hollow and don't have a lot of substance to them (sorry if you're afraid of flying -- that realization probably didn't help) because they have to be as light as possible. If you want to know what that impact would look like, here's a military test of a supersonic jet rocketed into a slab of concrete similar to what we're using. Bits of the jet (an F4 Phantom, for you aviation geeks) explode to dust ...
... but the slab behind it holds fast. The bit of debris that appears to penetrate the slab at the end is the wing flying past it -- the result of that impact on the slab was a 2.5-inch-deep scratch at the point where the heaviest parts (the engines) impacted it. It'd be like trying to destroy a tank with a water balloon.
And sure enough, tests and analysis by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission show that an aircraft hitting a nuclear power plant would sort of disintegrate on impact. All the jet fuel would burn, but concrete (unlike steel beams) takes forever to heat up. Four-foot-thick concrete takes even longer. The fire would burn itself out before doing any appreciable damage to the structure, even if it would make a hell of a mess.
... Yet Generators Are Vulnerable To The Tiniest Things
If sand were to end up in your car's engine, or a rock in a lawn mower, or a goose in a jet engine, that's what we call "foreign material." In a nuclear power plant, foreign material will ruin you and all that you hold dear. For example, here is the result of leaving a $0.95 roll of paper towels in a turbine:
So now imagine what it's like when we're working on the machinery and someone thinks some object or other has fallen in. Everything grinds to a halt while we meticulously take everything apart in an effort to find it.
Once, during one of our planned outages, we were cleaning up and getting ready to close the generator for operation when someone noticed a hole where a half-inch bolt should be (meaning it had fallen off somewhere). So finding that became top priority -- we went all over the place, crawling over equipment, wearing full-body harnesses like industrial spelunkers. We never found the bolt, but we did find a screwdriver and 57 cents' worth of coins. During that time, we had to take the whole generator apart, undoing days of work, and the company lost buttloads of money. But we found loose change, so that must have helped a bit.
Oh, and remember all that concrete that protects the plants? Well, concrete is porous. Those tiny pores are great at hiding tiny bits of debris. Concrete also creates dust of its own. This concrete dust, along with metal shavings, flakes of rust, sand, dead skin cells, etc -- all of it accumulates in the system, like the crumbs in a toaster. It flows around and around, slowly eroding everything, and it can become radioactive by passing through the reactor. Then these particles settle down in piles inside the pipes. When maintenance is done on these pipes, the particles get thrown about, resulting in contamination.
So how in the hell do you prevent that? You paint and you clean, obsessively. The staff continuously paints every surface (walls, pipes, equipment) to eliminate these imperfections so dust won't land and radiation particles won't accumulate (painted metal doesn't rust, painted concrete doesn't create or store dust). These painted surfaces are then constantly wiped down. There are even sticky pads you step on to remove dust from your shoes.
And foreign material is just one of the many little things that can grind work to a halt. Once, we had to rebuild a tiny half-inch valve delivering lubrication to the turbine. A small mistake during the reassembly caused 50 gallons of thin, flammable, corrosive oil to go spraying everywhere. Another time, the control room people goofed and shut a massive valve to the cooling tower before turning off the pump. The resulting pressure caused the pipe to burst, and we had ourselves a man-made geyser. Of course, this was in the winter, so the whole thing then froze solid.
Yes, I realize I'm painting a very Homer-Simpson-ish portrait of the operation. But to be extra clear: None of that put the public in danger. These are expensive problems, but not dangerous ones.
Meanwhile, we have to deal with the fact that ...
All The Equipment Is Ridiculously Old
Walking around a nuclear power plant, you can't help feeling like you're in an antique shop. Everything has this well-cared-for, vintage feel, and that's because it is all vintage. A lot of the plants in operation now were designed and built around the '60s, and they haven't changed since. For example, the below image looks like some retro photo or old movie set, but it's the control room of your neighborly nuclear plant. It's all analog. The circuitry doesn't even use transistors. It's electro mechanical; we're hipster like that.
The actual operation of a nuclear power plant uses no software. Inputs such as temperature, pressure, and flow are taken with gauges and conservative estimates, rather than electronic sensors. You might theorize that this is an elaborate fail-safe against Die Hard IV-style cyber attacks, but no, it's simply a relic of an earlier technological era, and the plants must now modernize. However, any change to the base design of a plant requires a ton of analysis and engineering (hey, that's me!) to make sure it will be as safe and reliable, if not moreso, than before.
Speaking of which, the people are also old. Most of the plants opened around the same time, so once everyone was hired and all the positions filled up, there was no need to bring in additional people. Then, after Three Mile Island happened, we stopped building plants, which means we stopped creating new positions for new people. Therefore, most of my coworkers are decades older than me. In the next couple of years, 38 percent of the industry's 120,000 workers are set to retire, giving the 90-plus plants a baby boomer crisis of a worker exodus.
So you engineering majors reading this to procrastinate on your homework? Don't. Go study. Don't do drugs. Try to avoid having a police record. These jobs are coming for you. American energy independence needs you. Also, you'll be happy with your nuclear paychecks. And don't get nervous about flipping the wrong switch and rendering the East Coast uninhabitable. The fact is that ...
Even "Nuclear Disasters" Weren't Really Disasters
There's no getting around it: Chernobyl was awful. The design of the reactor was terrible, its purpose for being was terrible, its operation was terrible, the test they were performing when it blew up was terrible. The reactor was designed to primarily produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. The reactor was housed in a warehouse rather than a full containment building. It was designed so overheating sped up the reaction until the whole thing burst like an overinflated balloon.
But we don't have to fear nuclear energy just because the Soviets did it the dumb way. That would be like banning cars because some drunk guy crashed one while trying to steer with his penis.
The other two disasters, our homegrown Three Mile Island and the recent Fukushima disaster in Japan, are remarkable in how little damage happened. Nobody died in either of these events from anything nuclear-related (can any other industry boast zero fatalities for two-thirds of their worst-ever accidents?). The public did not get huge blasts of radiation -- not more than they'd have from a single X-ray. The power plants didn't blow up as nuclear bombs (that's physically impossible; they don't have the fissionable material).
During the Three Mile Island event, bad decisions escalated the disaster. And still, there was no explosion. There was no China Syndrome. There were no casualties or injuries. None of the workers or surrounding population are at higher risk of cancer. It was a financial disaster for sure -- the interior of the massively expensive reactor is ruined. But it was not a human or ecological disaster. The other reactor at the Three Mile Island site continues to run this day.
As for Fukushima, when the earthquake hit, power transmission towers collapsed, isolating the plant from off-site power. All the operating reactors shut down automatically. Pumps and other safety systems kept running. Just they're supposed to.
Then an hour later, the tsunami rolled in. Ugh.
As it turns out, the protective sea wall wasn't built high enough, and the generators and associated systems were flooded with salt water. This was bad. The batteries, as designed, provided power to the safety systems for another few hours, but damage kept aid from reaching the plants, and the batteries eventually ran out. Then the water in the reactors and fuel pools boiled off, which allowed the fuel to heat up to its melting point. This also produced massive amounts of hydrogen, which caused the explosions we saw on the news -- those weren't nuclear explosions, just regular boring chemical ones.
The result of Fukushima is, like Three Mile Island, a financial disaster. A six-unit site, capable of producing tremendous amounts of clean energy, is now offline forever. The surrounding area was evacuated as a precaution. Food production is limited in the area as a precaution. Water with radioactive elements is being captured and cleaned as a precaution. But no one died from radiation. No one was vaporized in a runaway nuclear chain reaction. There are no dead fish, birds, or animals. The workers that day, known as the Fukushima 50, aren't even significantly more prone to cancer (PTSD is the bigger threat for them).
I'm not going to claim catastrophe can never strike someday. But the public's fears about nuclear power are the reason plants couldn't get built without layers and layers of fail-safes (again. with the exception of the old Soviet Union, which couldn't engineer a pair of shoes that wouldn't catch fire every now and then). You can debate among yourselves how much of a role nuclear should have in our green energy future. But at this stage, "The plants could blow up and spew radiation at any time!" shouldn't be one of the points against it.
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