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The Oconee Nuclear Station  (Source: suite101.com)
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 Targon on 5/30/2011 10:13:10 PM , Rating: 2
Electricity is inherently dangerous, yet we use it. A big factor in what makes for nuclear disasters is how many decades the problem reactors have been running. If a plant was built in the 1950s, and progress has been made in the design since then, the big problem then is that older nuclear generators are never upgraded or re-built, and so, older plants are going to be more dangerous.

Now, there is always going to be a problem with building ANY sort of power generation in an area that is prone to earthquakes, or coastal storms. Going to a rural area in the middle of the USA MIGHT seem like a bad idea due to tornado activity, except that nuclear reactors CAN be put underground to avoid that danger.


RE: Yes..
By Omega215D on 5/31/2011 7:16:23 AM , Rating: 2
It's funny how a game like Sim City 3000 and 4 have included powerplant lifetime and people in charge of the real world act as if the plants don't need upgrading. Instead of upgrading our plant in NY they want to demolish it completely, meanwhile they're planning new plants out in California.


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