Nuclear Power Plant Outages ‘No Place for Cowboys’
Nov. 25, 2013—Across the country as the leaves begin to turn and fall comes, nuclear power plants start to power down. This year, 21 U.S. commercial reactors are temporarily shutting down for routine maintenance and refueling.
About 1,000 workers are on the job for a typical one-reactor outage, usually scheduled for low-demand periods in the spring and autumn. Among them is outage veteran Curtis Wilson, who has been doing this for almost 20 years at sites such as Peach Bottom, Indian Point and Calvert Cliffs.
“My first [outage] was in 1996 at Ginna in New York,” said Wilson, who mainly works as an electrician but is also certified as an under-vessel technician.
During a typical nuclear plant outage, workers replace about one-third of the fuel in the reactor. Outages usually include routine inspections and maintenance, but they can also be a time to replace equipment ranging from valves to steam generators.
Wilson said the job requires expertise and dedication.
“There is no place for cowboys or a ‘git ‘er done’ mindset. I believe that the more seasoned workers are a better fit,” he said.
Curtis Wilson, working a nuclear plant outage. Follow him on Twitter at @nukeroadie.
In an email interview, Wilson described his typical day as an outage worker.
“Get through security, muster in whatever area is designated, then a morning safety briefing with plant status info,” Wilson said. “Supervisors dole out work assignments. Most jobs take longer to prepare for than the actual work involved, so there is a lot of chair time in this business. ‘Safety first’ takes time.”
Wilson emphasized the importance of safety by describing the work he does underneath the reactor vessel during an outage.
“I wear a transmitting dosimeter and extremity dosimeters on my fingers, head, feet [and] waist. They are monitored by a designated radiation professional that is in radio contact with me and my supervisor,” said Wilson. “I get constant updates on my dose field or range, [including] any hot spots or spikes. If there is any alarm, everyone leaves the area, not just me.” Dosimeters measure the amount of radiation exposure received, or cumulative dose.
Wilson said the security requirements are rigorous, especially for acquiring site access.
“The background checks are extensive, to say the least. My first outage it took a week and a half to detail my life’s work history and any criminal issues before I was granted unescorted access,” Wilson said.
Wilson spends his time working outages in the spring and fall, enjoying his free time in the summer.
“During outage season, I put in long hours and I’m gone for weeks or even months at a time, so I make up for it during my off time,” Wilson said. “My working year is always spring and fall with unemployment during the summer. I sometimes will work locally in the summer, but for the most part I spend a lot of time with my family.”
Wilson said that although working plant outages isn’t for everyone, he wouldn’t trade it for anything else.
“This is what I will retire doing,” Wilson said. “I tell everyone that I wish I’d found this decades ago. The pay scale is great and the safety culture is outstanding.”
You can follow Wilson on Twitter as he completes outages and shares his thoughts on the nuclear energy industry at @nukeroadie.