The following interview shows a teacher's reaction to her visit to a typical nuclear power plant. It answers many questions you may have about the safety of nuclear power and also demonstrates what you may learn by visiting such a facility. The interview was conducted on August 30, 1998, and the person being interviewed is Mrs. Carlivati, a science teacher for the Nysmith School for the Gifted in Fairfax County, Virginia. The creators of Energy Matters would like to thank her for taking the time to sit down and answer our questions!
1. What is the name and location of the power plant?
I visited the Surry power plant located in Surry, Virginia.
2. What was the purpose of the visit (what did you hope to learn)?
The purpose of the visit was for educators to learn more about energy sources. It was a workshop designed specifically for educators of students K through 12.
3. Which reaction was used in the plant?
The reaction in the plant was the fissioning of uranium into krypton and barium.
4. How many workers were at the plant?
If I remember correctly, there were about 200 employees at this particular plant.
5. How much of the plant was automated?
Much of the plant was automated; however, all of the processes were supervised by individuals. There were people required at all the various stages of operation, and every person had a backup person, and every automated system had a backup automated system run by another person.
6. What was the relative size of the plant? How large an area (population) does it serve?
The plant was relatively compact in size, although when you put all the buildings of the operation together, it probably was the size of a small mall. The area serviced by this is not governed by state lines, and although this particular plant provides 17% of the electricity needs of Virginia, it also services areas in North Carolina. It had two 800 megawatt units at this site.
7. What safety precautions were there, both to prevent a meltdown and to protect the uranium byproducts from being stolen?
There were numerous safety precautions taken at this site, both to prevent meltdown and to protect the uranium byproducts from being stolen. For one thing, to protect the meltdown, the entire structure is housed in concrete and steel to a thickness of 6 inches completely surrounding the nuclear reactor site. Additional safety precautions included the automatic dropping of the rods simply by gravity if the need be so that the production of energy could be stopped within slightly more than two seconds, at which point of course the heat buildup would be controlled through the water that they run in the plant. To make sure that there's never any problem that there isn't sufficient water to take care of the buildup of heat, the water is supplied directly from the river, again using gravity as a backup just in case all of their redundant programs were to fail at once. Every single operation had a backup that was independent of the original operation at every single step. They have the equivalent of a locomotive engine which is used to power one portion of the plant as a backup only. And yet every single month they completely test this, and replace parts every 3 months just as a precaution although they have never had to turn it on. And this was the kind of backup that we saw... Every backup system was completely tested, and everything was functional, everything was kept in practically brand new condition. To get into the plant, there are numerous checkpoints you have to go through. First, you have to find Surry, Virginia, which is no small task. Then, when you get to the plant, you do not just walk in. The visitor's center is open to the public, but when you get to the plant, we were put in a van, we all had to have our driver's licenses with picture IDs, we had to have mailed in our social security numbers before we were permitted to enter, and actually no one under the age of 18 is allowed in the plant. When we got to the plant, there was an initial safety point where our picture IDs were checked, and we were given an initial pass that we had to pin on. Then we went to the next site and it was a turnstile that was full-length, so it wasn't anything you could jump over...It was an entire gated system, and to get through that there was a security officer who viewed us and decided whether or not to activate the gate. And one by one we were let in. We had to turn and have our pictures taken and we went through another of the same gates. And at this point we were still quite far from the entire plant and all of the things you would want to protect. Getting out was the same procedure with the addition of going through a Geiger counter to make sure that we hadn't picked up any radiation that we should deal with at that point. And again, they viewed us as we left, they had to activate, and we were let out one by one through the system. So I felt it was very very secure, and many precautions had been taken.
8. About how old was the plant?
Operations began at the Surry plant on Unit 1 on December of 1972, and Unit 2, the other unit, became operational in May of 1973.
9. Briefly try and recall every step of the tour.
The tour showed us all of the safe-operating parts of the plant; in other words, we never saw the uranium, naturally, and only saw video of the process of taking uranium rods into the boronated water storage and out of the boronated water storage. The closest we got to uranium was looking at the long-term storage which has been added and is completely encased in steel and concrete, 2000-ton units that are in a larger unit still, and they basically look like very large home water tanks. We saw those just by driving by, and then we got out and walked into the plant and saw the two units' generating systems, in other words the turbines, and since they were all encased in steel and insulation, we basically just saw what looked like the inside of an airplane hangar with two large semi-circular structures inside. When we walked underneath, we saw some of the tubing of the river water that runs into the plant, and we went into the control room. The control room at the Surry power plant is completely computerized, and every single system has two independent checks. We saw that there were probably 10-12 individuals in that plant supervising all of those units. We saw the redundancy systems of the backup batteries, backup engines, and we also saw a cut-open model of the turbines that are used to actually generate the steampower for the unit.
10. What can students learn from a trip to the power plant?
You must be 18 or older to enter the power plant due to the Regulatory Commission's ruling on who can go into a nuclear facility. However, there is a visitor's center on-site which had very well done wall-size models showing every step of the processing from uranium to the electricity; it also showed the precautions taken to see that there was no leakage to protect the workers and how electricity can be generated; it showed us models of the power of the rods and of the little pellets and the size of those so that a student entering the visitor's center would learn a great deal but would not be permitted in the plant.
11. Briefly compare the nuclear power plant to coal and gas powered facilities.
I also went to the coal and gas plants that generate electricity for Virginia Power, and the main difference between the two was that the nuclear plant was extremely clean...Everything was painted white, there was a huge American flag between the two power units, it was a spotless facility, there was no dirt or grime anywhere within, and it was an extremely secure facility. When we went to the other generating plant which was in Chester, Virginia, there was security in terms of a man at a gate who let us in, and that was the extent of it. Since it used coal to generate a good deal of the electricity it was gritty and grimy, and if you touched a handrail you got coal, and although they used great precautions to keep the coal from getting into the water system and to recover much of the waste generated by the plant, within the plant there still was evidence of the dirtiness involved in that process. The gas-generated station in the same facility was as clean as the nuclear power center, but it was much older, so it didn't look as clean and finished as the other plant.