The topic of nuclear power tends to divide people. On the one hand, you have those who think nuclear energy is the best alternative to fossil fuels that we have. And on the other, there are people who learned about nuclear energy from comic books and are terrified by it because they live right next to a trout farm and don’t want to become the lamest superhero ever. But the truth is I myself don’t really understand it all, which is why I reached out to Andrew who works at a nuclear generating station as a Primary Systems Engineer. This is what I’ve learned about his job:
4. You Need To Be In Great Shape To Work At A Nuclear Plant
Like it or not, the international face of nuclear power plants is Homer Simpson, a man so horribly overweight, he gets winded from jumping to conclusions or running his mouth. As such, nuclear energy doesn’t really seem like a profession where you have to be in especially good shape.
“You wouldn’t expect an engineer’s job to be particularly physical,” Andrew seemingly agrees with me, “but given the simple fact that my jobsite is an industrial site, everything is massive. It’s a minimum ten-minute walk from my desk to the main control room alone. There’s six main floors that house all the equipment, scaling 120 feet from the subbasement of the auxiliary to the topmost deck of the turbine building. The primary containment building is also over 200 feet tall and some engineers have to climb the ladders up to the top of that to perform regular structural inspections.”
There apparently are elevators in some buildings but everything leading to the containment section is all stairs and ladders. And none of the access routes are a straight shot, too, to make the radiation zig-zag in confusion in case of a containment breach, I assume. Also, you have to traverse this entire maze in yellow rubber protection suits while the temperatures reach something like 90 degrees.
“The first refueling outage I was working [when the plant powers down so they can change the fuel rods], I was ‘selected’ to inspect all four of our steam generators. Basically I was young and spry and they wanted me to climb over the ‘coffin walls’ to the four massive steam generators. Each of these 60-foot tall behemoths is encased in even taller 5-foot thick reinforced concrete structures, or coffins as we call them. In a giant rubber contamination protection suit, I had to climb ladders up, over, down and throughout each coffin while the reactor containment building was a balmy 106F and humid as a rainforest. I climbed nearly a quarter-mile of ladders in that heat to do leak inspections on this giant metal can.”
Jeez, no wonder so many fictional nuclear scientists end up becoming superheroes/villains – they are already in fantastic shape and are used to protective clothing that doesn’t let the skin breathe.
3. The Plants Are So Huge, You Can Actually Get Lost In Them
If you’re scared of terrorists or a drunk Joe Biden sneaking into a nuclear power plant and just wrecking shit up in there, here’s something that might put your mind at ease: Between someone tripping a NPP’s security alarm and getting to a place where they could do some real damage, security would have time to prepare an entire Thanksgiving turkey and then beat the intruder to death with it. That’s because nuclear plants are simply gigantic, as Andrew explains:
“The plant sits on about 3500 acres, about 2/3s of that is the lake, which is our cooling source … The reactor block consists of two cylindrical reactor containment building, a fuel handling building, an auxiliary systems building, and a turbine building. Walking at a normal stroll, it would take me over 2 hours to tour the entirety of the 5 floors of the turbine building. The auxiliary building and fuel building would take another hour and a half at least.”
It’s actually all so huge that Andrew once got lost in containment for three whole hours. “I was climbing in and out of mazes of pipes, valves, pumps, and tanks. Everything is the same in containment. Light brown walls, silver piping, metal grating, and stairs that seemingly lead nowhere. I wandered for a while. My pride wore off at about three hours and I searched for anyone who could show me the way out. Didn’t take long to find some burly carpenter that had a good laugh at the new kid. I took a lot of crap from coworkers after that one!”
2. The Hours Can Get Insane
A nuclear power plant is a little bit like a candle or a crazy girlfriend: if you don’t pay attention to it, it’ll burn down your house. That’s why NPPs have to be monitored constantly, which is thankfully done in shifts but those aren’t exactly a picnic either. Another NPP source I spoke to straight-up said that he and his team are often on the verge of cabin fever because they can never leave their posts for more than a few minutes. Bathroom breaks, getting something to eat, a walk to stretch your legs: you are required to do all of those within earshot of your team, which after a few weeks will make you pray for someone to invent a silencer for toilet bowls.
Andrew has had less-severe but similar experiences: “During refuel outages, the plant is staffed around the clock. (Side note: when operating, the plant is obviously staffed and run 24/7, but the staffing is reduced as most maintenance is scheduled during the day.) We shut down a unit once every 18 months to refuel the reactor and the plant does a lot of maintenance during that time. All of the work that can’t be done due to radiation or heat concerns must be done in the about three weeks of refuel outages. I worked 12-hour days (plus commute) for 17 of the 19 days of our last outage.”
And all this is happening with your bosses doing their best Mr. Burns impression of shouting at you to hurry it up because every second the plant isn’t operational is losing them money. But that’s why nuclear plant employees undergo psychological tests during the hiring process, to weed out all of those who respond to stressful situations by causing a reactor meltdown while yelling “BOW BEFORE INFERNUS, MASTER OF CLEANSING FIRE!”
1. Some Of The Nuclear Safety Regulations Are Nuts
What keeps you awake at night? Death? Your mortgage? Leading questions that are just set-ups for lame jokes? For people who come up with nuclear plant regulations, it’s apparently genius, dickish tornadoes.
“Thanks to the oversight from the NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] and all the industrial safety organizations, a lot of the nuclear industry nowadays is bogged down in procedure and bureaucracy. Our plants are licensed to operate based on a document numbering well over 10,000 pages. The NRC’s goal, and by extension the plant’s, is to ‘protect the health and safety of the public’. I have no problem with that premise, but when the NRC comes up with some preposterous scenarios and we actually have to build new plant systems or structures to cope, it gets a little frustrating … Take the ‘smart tornado’ scenario: an EF5 tornado picks up a nearby forest and deposits the whole of the forest into the cooling towers. The whole forest in the 400-foot tall cooling towers.”
Yes, actual power plants must now plan accordingly for when Mother Earth decides to plant some forests in an NPP cooling tower. And every plant henceforth must adhere to all of the stuff the NRC has mandated since the last design, making the $5-6 billion construction costs grow. The uncertainty of the future of the industry makes anyone with the money to invest even less willing, which is why almost no new nuclear plants are being built around the world: In case the NRC decides they must also build giant grates over the cooling vents to stop Mothra from flying into them.
“The NRC will need to re-evaluate the limits of regulation if they want to have plants to regulate. Nuclear plants can go bad in ways unlike any other industry, making land uninhabitable for tens of thousands of years. This require adequate care. But don’t tell me that a whole forest will plant itself in my tower without a damn good physics model and a few meteorologists telling me it’s plausible.”