Failing to Maintain the Big Picture

June 15, 2016, 6:11PMANS Nuclear Cafe

by J.H. Stewart Melville III

To give the reader some context to this story, I have to begin by telling you a little about me.  I'm almost 40 years old and have worked in the nuclear industry for nearly 20 years.  A little over a decade of it was spent in the U.S. Navy as a submarine reactor operator.  I completed three deployments in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, and was honorably discharged in 2008.  When I transitioned out of the Navy I was fortunate enough to get a job in the commercial nuclear industry.  I have spent the last eight years working at the James A. FitzPatrick Nuclear Power Plant in Oswego, NY.

Shortly after I arrived in New York, the NRC approved the license renewal for my plant, which extended its license to 2034.  Let's be frank, I could do the math.  That meant I had the opportunity to work at this site until I was 57 years old.  I also met and married my wife, bought a house, and had a son.  I was happy, and things seemed fairly stable for the foreseeable future.

FitzPatrick is great, and has afforded me many opportunities.  I was able to apply the skills that I learned in the Navy and began by using them in the Instrumentation and Control Maintenance Shop.  I have met some incredible people that have mentored me and have assisted me in my personal and professional development.  My first job was as a procedure writer, and in a few years, I became a maintenance-first line supervisor.  I qualified as a root cause analyst, and attended more seminars than I can even remember on procedure writing, supervisory skills, systematic problem solving, and human performance skills.  Ultimately, I returned to what I loved best, operating a nuclear power plant.  I received my Senior Reactor Operator license in April of 2016.

I always prided myself on my ability to see the big picture.  Whether it was the integrated plant impact of the maintenance we performed, the that role my department (and others) played in the safe and error free operation of the plant, or understanding why my managers and directors made the decisions they made.  I kind of prided myself in that skill.

With that said, I have to admit, I took the closure announcement of Vermont Yankee as a warning.  But in my mind, Fitzpatrick was different.  Entergy invested nearly 100 million dollars into the plant in 2014.  In Vermont, they loathe nuclear power.  In Oswego, they love it.  We have three nuclear plants in this city.  The plants are part of the community.  It seems like everyone has a parent, aunt, uncle, sibling, or neighbor who works at one of the plants, or retired from them.  We contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to local charities annually, and contribute countless volunteer hours.

But yet, here I am.  I am licensed Senior Reactor Operator whose plant is scheduled to close in January of 2017.  Even more shocking to me, there are approximately a half-dozen plants facing a similar fate before the end of the decade.  I currently spend my days laying out the abandonment plans for the systems that I spent a better part of a decade learning down to the smallest detail.

How did this happen?  In simple terms, the loss of the big picture, on two fronts.  I failed to see my responsibility to ensure that nuclear power was being advocated for.  The country failed to recognize the value of the carbon neutral energy which nuclear power plants provide.

With regards to the first failure, I never thought that my plant could really close early.  No one would believe that you could retire a nuclear power plant early, especially having earned the highest INPO rating, and being in a community that fully supported nuclear power.  The more I analyzed my situation, the more I realized that I had only maintained the big picture inside of one nuclear power plant.  I never worried about who was advocating for nuclear power on a state and national level.  I failed to understand the economic climate surrounding power generators.  I failed to ensure that I was part of a group (or groups) which advocated the benefits of nuclear power.  That I have since rectified.

With regards to the second failure, I have to admit that I am no expert.  Inside the ANS I am sure are members holding doctorates in every aspect of the operation of a nuclear power facility.  But, I am a voracious learner.  I have made it my sole purpose in the last few months to fully investigate every aspect of what could have happened to allow us to get to the point where the premature retirement of a multi-billion-dollar nuclear facility is the best choice for an owner.  I've read articles (some of which I will reference at the end of this document) which detail the impending horrors associated with climate change, the carbon footprint of various power sources, the economic impact of premature plant closure, and the economics of power generation.  I attended symposiums on power generation in the 21st century.  I have attended the NY State presentations on Reforming Energy Vision (REV).  From this I was able to draw five conclusions:

  • Climate change is inevitable under our current regulations.  As a result, major changes need to be made to how CO2 is generated to prevent significant climate change in the next century.
  • With our current technology, Nuclear Power is the only technologically-viable and large scale solution to fight climate change.  Additionally, combined heat and power would make the largest impact instead of looking at electricity consumption alone.
  • Nuclear power generation is routinely given zero economic credit for being a carbon neutral resource.  Routinely the word "renewable" is used instead of "carbon-neutral" or "carbon efficient" (since everything has a carbon footprint using current technology).  This places nuclear power generators in the position to advocate how their carbon footprint is smaller than "renewable" resources, and they have a larger positive ecological impact.
  • Retirement of nuclear power leads to increased CO2 output.
  • Electricity markets are regulated on a state level.  Nuclear Power is regulated federally by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).  As a result, changes in state power markets would have to be duplicated 50 times to make a real change.  Why?

As a result of everything that I have listed above, I generated this petition:

I believe that changes in the regulation of carbon efficient power need to be made at a federal level, and I want the federal government to institute policies that recognize the special and unique benefits of nuclear power.  The federal government regulates the licensing and operation of nuclear power plants, but leaves it to the individual states to determine the value of their carbon efficient electricity.  This makes little sense to me.  When the decision was made to remove R-12 Freon or cigarettes from common usage, they were effectively taxed into being economically non-viable.  Why isn't this happening for CO2 generation?  Why should it have to happen in each individual state?

I implore you to login to the website above and sign the petition.  We need to fight climate change.  We need an answer from the federal government on why they only regulate a portion of nuclear power.  We need to prevent the premature retirement of fully viable carbon efficient power generators.

Stewart MelvilleJ.H. Stewart Melville III is currently the decommissioning senior reactor operator (SRO) at Fitzpatrick. He is a member of the American Nuclear Society and is a part of the Decommissioning & Environmental Sciences Division, as well as the Operations and Power Division.