Print 29 comment(s) - last by JonB.. on Jun 28 at 1:37 PM

The Oconee Nuclear Station  (Source:
The Oconee Nuclear Station will receive digital upgrades on Reactor 1 within the next few weeks

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."

Digital 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 30 years.

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RE: Yes..
By HilbertSpace on 5/30/2011 4:56:07 PM , Rating: -1
The problem with nuclear power is the spent fuel, and the timescales that the fuel is radioactive for. Until that's sorted out - only sane option there is to send it into space - nuclear is inherently dangerous. If people really thought it was safe why are the plants always built further away from a city? Why not right downtown?

I'm also shocked by the complete lack of coverage of the disaster in Japan - it's now worse than Chernobyl. I'm waiting for the day that Tokyo gets evacuated. They are still trying to "clean up" Chernobyl 25 years later!! Newest solution is to build a massive dome to cover it all.

RE: Yes..
By TSS on 5/30/2011 5:16:00 PM , Rating: 2
Why not bury it inside a mountain?
However, under pressure from the Obama Administration funding for development of Yucca Mountain waste site was terminated effective with the 2011 federal budget passed by Congress on April 14, 2011.

Ah nevermind.

RE: Yes..
By SPOOFE on 5/30/2011 10:38:20 PM , Rating: 5
The problem with nuclear power is the spent fuel, and the timescales that the fuel is radioactive for.

No, that's a problem with our nuclear POLICY, namely: In the United States it is illegal to reprocess our nuclear waste. If we did reprocess it, we'd eliminate 95% of the most radioactive material, create a grip of more fuel, and the remainder would be only a fraction as radioactive as the waste used to be (and even then much of it has other uses, such as in the medical world).

In other words: We're idiots about nuclear power.

RE: Yes..
By Samus on 5/30/2011 10:54:42 PM , Rating: 3
Nicolas Sarkozy offered to 'buy' out nuclear waste, as France has hybrid reactors that can generate power from spent fuel.

As soon as an agreement is reached and a safe transportation system is built, our problem to 'nuclear waste' is solved...until we (hopefully) build hybrid reactors of our own to process spent fuel from our older reactors.

The best part is they petrify the bi-product of the spent fuel (which at that stage is true waste) and bury it, so it can not leech into water supplies and radiation is minimized.

RE: Yes..
By mvs on 5/31/2011 3:04:13 AM , Rating: 2
The best part is they petrify the bi-product of the spent fuel (which at that stage is true waste) and bury it, so it can not leech into water supplies and radiation is minimized.

Heard this tech mentioned by, of all people, Rush. About <ahem> 20 years ago.

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