Ever since the 9.0-magnitude earthquake damaged
the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan on March 11, nuclear power has been
a popular topic. The tragic event has caused U.S.
senators and French
President Nicolas Sarkozy to question it, while avid
nuclear supporters defended its clean, reliable, and cheap benefits.
In addition, the Browns
Ferry nuclear power plant in Alabama failed an inspection earlier this month,
Fukushima Daiichi suffered
a nuclear meltdown and studies related to nuclear
radiation's effect on humans are popping up everywhere.
But the negative nuclear reviews don’t stop there.
Germany announced recently that it is "scrapping" nuclear power due
to the problems in Japan, and plans to begin phasing
out nuclear power by 2022.
Nuclear power has received a bad reputation after
the disaster in Japan, but regulators and nuclear plants are working to make
systems more safe and reliable, and one plant in particular is doing so by
becoming the first to go digital.
The Oconee Nuclear Station reactor, which is
located on Lake Keowee near Seneca, South Carolina, will be the first of 104
reactors in the U.S. to go digital. The plant has an energy output capacity of
over 2,500 megawatts, and will be kicking old analog technology to the curb in
an effort to save money and increase reliability.
Most power plant systems today consist of monitors
with four sensors, and if two of the sensors start to have crazy readings, the
plant has to be shut down until the sensors are fixed. This process can
sometimes last a day or longer, which can cost a utility company over $2
million. With a digital system, these issues can be fixed more quickly, saving
time and money.
A digital system can measure thousands of readings
at any time, and will provide operators with more data about plants operations.
Its measurements will be more precise than those of an analog system, and can
alert operators when something is wrong quickly.
"One of the goals is to make the operator's
life, I won't say easy, but to make operator's more focused on the primary
aspects of the job," said Jeff Hekking, a senior reactor operator.
"Just like an airline pilot, you want him to focus on flying the airplane
-- you don't want him spending all day trying to get the cabin pressure right."
systems have already been implemented in Europe and Asia; it has been slow
going in the U.S. mainly because of the fear of hackers breaking into the
system. But in Oconee's case, the software was designed with no external
network connections, and any communication between the system and reactor
operators is "heavily restricted."
Jere Jenkins, director of Radiation Labs at Purdue
University, also noted that over half of the United States' power plants are at
least 30 years old, and that "it's to the point where you can't replace
that equipment anymore," which means a digital conversion is the safest
bet for updating old systems.
Oconee's new system, which will be implemented at
Reactor 1 and is part of a $2 billion upgrade effort by Duke Energy, was tested
recently to see if it was a good fit. Hekking participated in a simulation
where there was an issue with the water
that cools the reactor. In the simulation, bells began to ring, signaling
that something is wrong within the plant, and operators allowed the situation
to worsen before taking action. At this time, warning sirens went off and the
control rods of nuclear material were removed from the reactor core, and as
this process was accomplished, the system turned several tiny red rectangle
lights green. Then the engineers stepped in to help control the situation, and
make sure that everything is back on track.
The new digital control panels will be put in
place at Oconee's Reactor 1 within the next few weeks, while Reactor 2 will
receive the same upgrades during next year's refueling and Reactor 3 will get
the digital conversion in 2013. The new panels for all three reactors will cost
$250 million, and is expected to keep the reactors running safely for another