MONTICELLO, Minn. (AP) — A year after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, Minnesotans wonder, “What if it happened here?” Workers at Xcel Energy’s nuclear plant here don’t have to wonder what such a disaster would be like. They’ve been through repeated simulations of it.
In a simulation room across the street from the 41-year-old plant, control room operators have undergone an exercise known as “The Fukushima Earthquake.”
The simulator control room rumbles, and an operator manning the front panels shouts out that a seismic event has occurred. Then the room suddenly goes dark from a lack of outside electricity.
But the reactor, shaped like an upside-down light bulb, is still going full blast, still producing radioactive heat. Without power, though, operators can’t insert control rods or circulate more water to cool down the chain reaction.
The only things still working are the “annunciators” — alarms that ping like an elevator going down, down, down in the darkness.
“It’s an eerie feeling,” said control room supervisor Rick Stadtlander, who has gone through the Fukushima exercise with other control room workers.
Could a nuclear disaster happen here? The question has been hanging over the nuclear industry since last year’s massive earthquake and tsunami triggered the worst nuclear power disaster since the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe in Ukraine.
Since Fukushima, regulators, scientists, pro- and anti-nuclear energy groups, and public officials have weighed in. But little has been heard from the workers inside plants like Monticello, whose job is to keep the plant and themselves safe — and who would be the first responders if anything went wrong.
At the request of the Pioneer Press (http://bit.ly/ykySJ6), Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy made some of its Monticello workers available to talk about their jobs. A discussion session — attended by Xcel officials — reveals that it grinds on the workers that the world’s most famous nuclear power plant employee is cartoon character Homer Simpson. They chafe at the perception that all they do is watch dials all day.
They stress the safety precautions they take every day, at every turn, and how they’ve changed procedures and equipment since Fukushima, such as adding more portable pumps and portable generators in case of blackouts.
The workers speak with a confidence borne out of constant training that they can handle whatever happens. So, of course, did the Japanese.
“We’re not a normal business; we’re not. There’s an element of working with something hazardous,” acknowledged Timothy O’Connor, site vice president for Monticello.
The people who work at the plant are not drawn to danger, but to the challenge of making something inherently dangerous — nuclear fission — into something routine and manageable.
Pete Kissinger, 50, the regulatory affairs manager who must interact with the NRC, studied general engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He chose nuclear engineering after the Three Mile Island disaster in Pennsylvania on March 28, 1979. The date sticks in his mind: It was also his birthday.
“I thought, ‘They’re going to need a lot of people in this industry going forward with all the changes taking place,’ ” Kissinger said. He knew the danger, but he wanted the challenge.
Then there are younger workers such as Katherine Brandtjen, 27, whose obscure title is “Appendix J Program Owner.”
She maintains a regulatory program that tests the integrity of the primary containment facility that houses the reactor. Dressed in blue surgical scrubs, steel-toed boots and a hard hat, she and another worker test valves in the reactor building outside the primary containment shield wall.
She wears the scrubs to make it easier to don a yellow “Class 2” safety outfit that will keep radiation from contaminating her clothing when she moves to more dangerous parts of the plant. And if she goes into an even more dangerous part of the building, she puts on a second yellow suit called a “Class 3.” She’ll shed each layer when she leaves that area to keep from tracking in possible radiation to a less contaminated part of the plant.
Everyone wears digital dosimeters, which are checked at the end of the day.
Brandtjen said she chose nuclear work because it involved “a large group of intelligent, driven people doing challenging work.”
Of course, the most enduring image of the nuclear plant worker is Homer Simpson, the doughnut-loving dolt who mismanages Springfield’s nuclear plant into repeated meltdowns.
Tom Shortell, the plant training manager, hears the Simpson jokes all the time outside the plant. He says he tries to turn it into a chance to have a dialogue about what the plant does right. But you can tell he’s tired of Homer. His workers cram in the equivalent of four years of college before they can touch the dials, he said, his voice bristling.
“The folks that run the plant are extremely intelligent, very competent, and I have no problem sleeping at night knowing they’re here working at the plant,” he said.
At Monticello, workers have to watch where they walk, be careful not to bump into things and pay attention to the signs.
They even have to pay attention to where they go to the bathroom. On the restroom doors are fluorescent pink signs that remind workers that if they’ve recently taken medical tests that required them to ingest a radioactive isotope, they must go to a special restroom. Otherwise, the isotopes in their urine will set off radiation monitors in the basement where the sewer system runs.
Clothing made of synthetics is discouraged because it creates static electricity, which attracts radon. Visitors to the reactor building get sprayed with Static Guard upon entering.
Through an airlock, which maintains negative pressure inside the building, Monticello looks like any industrial plant, festooned with racks of cabling overhead, concrete or metal grating below foot, and motivational posters everywhere.
Larry Spivak, 63, a machinist, is suiting up in a lemon-colored Class 2 suit with matching booties. Nearby are the gas-driven pistons that drive the 121 control rods up into the bottom of the boiling-water Mark 1 reactor, the same model as the reactors that melted down at Fukushima Dai-ichi.
The aquamarine paint job in the building lends it a vaguely underwater feeling.
Up several flights of stairs, at the top of the reactor, you can stare down into the open spent fuel rod pool. Through the murky depths, you can see the racks, painted with white crosses, where 14-foot spent fuel rod assemblies are lowered into place with an overhead crane. They’ll stay there about 10 years to cool enough to transfer to outdoor dry-storage casks.
When the Fukushima reactors lost power after the earthquake and tsunami, the water in the plant’s pools started to evaporate, leading to problems. The loss of power — called a station blackout — also left the plant with no way to stop three reactors, so they heated up, creating excess hydrogen gas.
The gas escaped the Fukushima reactors into the primary containment shell, built up, somehow mixed with oxygen and exploded, blowing the metal roofs off the larger secondary containment building.
The Monticello plant has vent pipes like the Japanese plant to let hydrogen gas escape the primary containment in emergencies, but Monticello’s vent can be opened without electricity, Xcel representatives say.
The plant’s procedures, its equipment and even its conversations are designed with redundancy — two of everything, everything repeated. Parker said he remembers asking a co-worker how to do something, and then was surprised when the man followed him back to his desk to make sure he did it the way he was told. “I was, ‘What are you doing …?’ He was peer-checking me.”
Brandtjen was used to working by herself in a lab, but that changed once she started at Monticello.
“In a nuclear plant, you’re never doing anything alone,” she said. “Someone is always watching you.”
The Control Room is near the end of the tour.
“Requesting permission to enter the Control Room!” the tour guide sings out.
“Come in,” the control room supervisor answers. It’s like asking permission to enter the bridge of a ship.
That’s no coincidence. Some plant procedures are lifted from the Navy’s nuclear subs, and not for nothing are the nation’s 104 reactors referred to as a “fleet.” Many of the industry’s workers are former sub and carrier crew members.
The control rooms are a marvel of technology — very, very old technology and very new. Most of the switches and dials are analog, designed in the 1960s, and they sit on a long wall topped with modern flat-panel displays that were installed a few years ago. The screens show a lit-up “mimic” of the plant and all its systems.
The room’s centerpiece is a diamond of red lights reflecting all the control rods. Each light shows each rod is fully withdrawn and the plant is running at full power.
This room is the most misunderstood part of a nuclear plant, said Kissinger, who used to help manage operations.
“They think, ‘You guys basically look at dials all night,’ but we’re constantly taking systems in and out of service; there’s constant activity.”
Stadtlander, the control room supervisor, flips through nearly a dozen pages of things that the operators will have to check off before their 12-hour shift is over.
There’s a rectangular light or tile for each system on the wall, and the ones that have a white border placed around them will be taken out of service for checking, he said. The border reminds the operators that maintenance is being performed — so they don’t panic when the light goes off.
In the control room, which is several degrees cooler than almost any other part of the plant and has a separate ventilation system for safety, the atmosphere is library-like. Visitors feel like they have to whisper to not disturb the controllers.
The simulator can be a different animal. Sometimes, said Phil Norgaard, the supervisor of operator continuing training, the trainers will crank the heat way up to simulate a hot summer day before tossing in multiple malfunctions.
They also do no-win situations — or, as Norgaard calls them, “simulations with no success path.”
“They keep trying things and they keep failing and it gets frustrating,” he said. “At the end, we’ll stop and ask them how they got there.”
In those cases, the trainers look at leadership qualities as well as decision-making, he said.
Which brings us back to Fukushima.
In the early hours of the disaster, as every system was failing, a cadre of Fukushima plant workers threw themselves into a furious and futile fight to save the plant.
The Japanese public called them “the Fukushima 50,” a faceless, nameless group stoically risking radiation exposure to get the catastrophe under control.
If a disaster would occur at Monticello, workers interviewed said, they fully expect they’d do the same thing.
“There’s no doubt in my mind everybody would stay. We respect the radiation, but we’re not scared,” said Tom Parker, Monticello’s Fukushima site coordinator. He has kept track of what the National Regulatory Commission and other agencies learned about the disaster for the past year and passed the lessons on to his fellow workers.
“That’s one of the behaviors you get ingrained from day one,” said John Earl, 53, the plant’s emergency-preparedness manager. “We don’t do anything out here without thinking or doing it in a way that preserves the health and safety of the people both inside the plant and in the surrounding community.”