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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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Thorium
By Paj on 5/31/2011 7:23:08 AM , Rating: 1
Everyone seems to be forgetting how much water nuclear power needs. Ive seen figures from 33 million up to 1 billion gallons a day, depending on the plant. A lot the water is recycled, but theres still a net loss from the surrounding water tables.

With water security becoming a major issue, and in light of Fukushima, to claim nuclear is the magic bullet for everything is erroneous at best. It could form part of an energy mix, put to put all your eggs in the nuclear basket is very short sighted.

If countries want to pursue a strong nuclear policy, they really need to look into thorium reactors. A lot of the problems with current reactors are based on the fuel they use. The more I read about thorium, the more amazing it seems.




RE: Thorium
By randomly on 5/31/2011 1:03:54 PM , Rating: 2
Current PWR and BWR reactors run at low enough temperatures that water or wet cooling gives a substantial increase in the thermodynamic efficiency. It is possible to use dry cooling towers, or hybrid cooling to reduce water usage. The primary motivation is economics, you make more money on your investment with wet cooling.

The same is true of coal plants and combine cycle plants which also use mostly wet cooling for the same reasons. The vast majority of all power generated uses wet cooling, so it's not exclusive to nuclear. 37% of our total water usage is for energy production, 40% for agriculture.

High temperature Gen IV nuclear plants have the potential to use dry cooling, almost eliminating water usage and still achieve very high efficiency.

If you are concerned about water usage, and you should be, the actual worst offenders of water usage are:
Biofuels - by far the worst
Geothermal - 3-10 times the water usage of nuclear.
Solar Thermal (most types)


RE: Thorium
By JonB on 6/28/2011 1:37:05 PM , Rating: 2
When you say that nuclear plants "need" water, you imply that the water is no longer usable or somehow ruined in the process. Fossil fuel based plants need equal amounts of water to run. Steam turbines need cooling water for their condensers. The power plants (nuke or fossil) will either pull in cool water and immediately discharge it as warmer water, usually only a few degrees, or will use cooling towers. If you've seen a huge plume of "steam" rising from a power plant, you've seen cooling towers. The classic pictures of Three Mile Island are really just of their cooling towers (Hyperbolic towers versus Forced Draft towers).

Take a look at power plant designs like the Palo Verde units (3 of them) outside of Phoenix. It is desert, so not much available water, so they take the discharge of the Phoenix wastewater system, pipe it out to the plant, clean it up and then cool the plant. Classic Win-Win.


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