For nuclear inspectors, a 'boring' day is a perfect day

2017-03-20 | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

March 20--Stacey Horvitz admitted she was a little excited on a recent morning, as the Beaver Valley nuclear power plant quietly loomed nearby.

She checked with her colleague, Jim Krafty, then reached for an emergency-red knob on the control panel, a sprawling bank of buttons, switches, computer monitors and lights that blinked dully. It would be a bit startling, she warned.

When she pulled it, several alarms sounded at once. Green lights turned red. Indicators showed the plant's power generation plummeting, off-site power sources turning on, and water pumps kicking into gear.

It was such a nightmare scenario for Ms. Horvitz and Mr. Krafty that they seemed to take comfort in stressing to visiting journalists that -- despite this simulated control room being a replica of the real one across the street -- none of this was real.

In fact, as the two resident inspectors at the Beaver Valley plant, they spend their days ensuring there's as little disruption as possible.

"A perfect day is a very boring day," said Mr. Krafty, the senior resident inspector, only a little tongue-in-cheek. "Boring means 100 percent power and everything's stable."

The job of a nuclear inspector is immensely important. Employed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, they are the public's eyes and ears at the one hundred or so nuclear power plants across the country.

The NRC launched the inspector program in 1978 -- just prior to the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in Dauphin County -- to improve the agency's oversight by being able to independently verify the performance of plant operators and equipment.

Although U.S. nuclear plants have not suffered a breakdown of Three Mile Island magnitude since, inspectors address plenty of issues that would otherwise go unnoticed by reviewing equipment, reading paperwork and, occasionally, responding to an error known as a "safety-significant event."

The Beaver Valley inspectors, like everyone else, begin their day by passing through security at the 1,800-megawatt nuclear plant, which is owned by Akron, Ohio-based FirstEnergy Corp. and sits on 453 acres along the Ohio River in Shippingport.

The inspectors get a first status update on the plant by looking over the operators' logs, Ms. Horvitz said. "We'll read the issues they've identified to see if anything has safety significance," she said. They glean more information by talking to the operators in the control room and attending daily meetings with plant management.

They then go about a routine schedule of inspections, keeping in touch with the NRC's regional office near Philadelphia.

Each year, their work culminates in an annual review of the plant's performance published by the NRC, which is discussed at a public town hall. This year's meeting is Monday from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at the Shippingport Community and Municipal Building.

The NRC trains prospective inspectors for months before sending them to a plant, pairing them with other resident inspectors to learn the ropes.

The inspectors are not licensed to operate the equipment and generally stay out of the way and let the company work, they said. They do, however, need to understand the plant equipment and know how to speak the lingo.

Every nuclear plant's control room and operations are slightly different, Mr. Krafty said. Even at Beaver Valley, where the two reactors are both manufactured by Westinghouse, there are subtle differences due to the evolving technology: The first unit came online in 1976 and the second in 1987.

Mr. Krafty, who joined the NRC in 2004, earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy and served as a submarine officer for seven years.

Ms. Horvitz joined the NRC in 2013, shortly after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh with a bachelor's in mechanical engineering. After completing the NRC's 18-month training program, she joined the regional office and this year was named a resident inspector at Beaver Valley.

Despite any natural tension between government agencies and businesses they regulate, the inspectors described the relationship the NRC has with FirstEnergy as constructive and respectful.

A big reason is the inspection program itself: While strictly prohibited from socializing or getting too close to any FirstEnergy employees, the resident inspectors are on the ground every day with the workers.

"They see us every day, which puts them more at ease," Mr. Krafty said. "They know we're not there to make issues. We're there to identify issues when they occur."

"We can disagree," he added, "but we can be professional about it."

In recent years, Mr. Krafty said, inspectors have been involved in a number of incidents on a scale of importance: In March 2015, a security officer placed an explosives detector in service without noticing an out-of-service sign; in April 2015, a water pump failed, forcing the plant to temporarily shut down; in January of this year, a false fire alarm occurred in one of the reactor containment buildings.

Incidents are graded on four tiers of emergency. For an "unusual event" -- declared by the NRC for January's false fire alarm -- is the lowest of four levels of emergency classification, for problems that "indicate a potential degradation of the level of safety of the plant."

Though tasked with alerting the public of flaws, they insist nuclear power is safe and clean. Ms. Horvitz was surprised that a good chunk of Americans -- nearly 1 in 3 in 2016, according to public opinion polls -- oppose nuclear power.

"If people were allowed to come in and observe all of this, they would see the great lengths they go to ensure safety," Mr. Krafty said.

Ms. Horvitz added, "If I didn't think it was safe, I wouldn't be here."

Daniel Moore:, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore.