Wolf Creek powers the future

Register Editor

Register/Susan Lynn
A mock catastrophe at Wolf Creek nuclear power plant was demonstrated in its simulation center. Ricky Murray, above, teaches engineers how to avert a nuclear meltdown if systems go awry. The training center is built to scale of the actual control room at the plant.

BURLINGTON — Wolf Creek nuclear power plant is halfway through a maintenance and refueling outage. That means that while production of electricity is off line, its work force is doing double time to overhaul the massive generating plant.
The 1,000-strong work force has been almost doubled and put on 12-hour shifts for the 35-day effort.
“Think of it as a 50,000-mile checkup on your car,” Cathy Autrey said of the outage which occurs every 18 months. Autrey works in emergency planning at the plant.
The most recent outage in early 2008 was an upgrade to the computer systems in Wolf Creek’s control room — the first in its then 24-year history. It will shut down again in 2011 to upgrade its four turbine generators. The plant schedules outages in spring or fall, when demand for electricity is at its lowest.

WEDNESDAY WAS “Media Day” at the plant, allowing this reporter into the bowels of the 2,000-foot tall building where electricity is produced by uranium-based nuclear chain reactions. The timing of the tour was especially propitious because the outage provided a quiet environment for the tour and gave reporters access to sites normally closed to the public, including the massive domed containment building in which the nuclear reactor sits and where the nuclear fuel rods are stored 40 feet down in eerily iridescent blue waters.
The plant sits on 10,000 acres, four miles northeast of Burlington. Coffey County Lake comprises half the site and provides the water necessary for the high-energy plant. The plant requires an immense volume of water, drawing 500,000 gallons per minute from the lake. The water is used in its steam generators and to cool selected components throughout the plant. In the containment pools, water also absorbs radiation from the rods.
“Water, concrete and lead are the three best protectors against radiological activity,” said Jenny Hagemen, a communication specialist for Wolf Creek who directed the day’s tour.
About half of its employees are from the immediate area of Coffey County, said Hageman. Other employees come from farther distances, including Kansas City, Lawrence, Ottawa and Wichita. The plant has an annual payroll of $165 million.
Many of the additional workers hired for the outage come from a pool of employees who work outages for the 104 nuclear power plants across the United States.
“They include tool room attendants all the way up to nuclear specialists,” said Hageman.
Wolf Creek’s site is the second most remote area in the country, topped by a plant in Palo Verde, Ariz.
Wolf Creek went online in 1985 after 14 years of planning and construction and at a final cost of $3 billion — triple the expected cost. It is owned by three utilities — Westar Energy, Great Plains Energy and Kansas Electric and Power Cooperative — and serves customers in northeast Kansas and portions of Missouri. Southeast Kansas does not use the electricity produced at the plant, but depends primarily on coal-generated power.
Wolf Creek’s 40-year license was extended in 2008 for another 20 years, to 2045.
It was designed to be a two-unit reactor site, but there are no plans at present to build a second unit, Hageman said. The Callaway plant outside of Fulton in north central Missouri is built in the same footprint as Wolf Creek’s and is called its “sister plant.” Otherwise, most of the nuclear power plants built in the United States are unique, “because we’re always trying to improve,” with each successive design, said Rick Murray, a licensed supervising instructor who works in the simulator lab.
That said, the industry has gone from a “myriad of plans” to a “certain set of designs” today that meet federal regulations, Hageman said. Sixteen U.S. plants have filed for new licenses, she said, but no new construction of a nuclear power plant is in the works. One factor that makes it difficult to proceed is that a company in Japan is the only one in world that manufactures the forged steel necessary to a nuclear power plant. At Wolf Creek, the walls of the containment building that houses the nuclear reactor are three-to-four feet thick and lined with leak-tight steel.
Most nuclear power plants have two units; the Arizona plant has three. Illinois has the most nuclear power plants with six. Wolf Creek supplies 19 percent of the electricity needs for Kansans.
The potential for more nuclear power plants being built in the United States is brighter than it has been in many years, said Hageman. The public perception of the industry being a hazard has been greatly mitigated by its impressive safety record and also, contrary to coal-fired plants, its emissions are carbon-free.
That said, nuclear power plants are incredibly expensive to build, in part because of the many safety systems they must include.
The terrorist bombings of Sept. 11, 2001 have added tremendous expenses to the plant’s operation, Hageman said. From 2002 to 2007, more than $5.6 million was spent for increased labor costs due to security measures dictated by the federal government, including security forces and new physical structures.
More than 600 employees serve on the plant’s beefed up emergency preparedness sector as responders, controllers or evaluators. In the Wolf Creek complex is a simulated control room that teaches engineers not only how to operate its various systems, but also what to do in case of an emergency.
That’s the domain of people like Murray who design mock catastrophes to see how engineers can avert a shutdown of the plant and release of radioactive material into the environment.
In the simulator building, the visiting press experienced a mock catastrophe that mimicked an earthquake. Multiple sirens blared, the floor shook and hundreds of lights on control panels around the room blinked, signaling broken pipes and trouble in the switchyard, making for a scenario “as bad as it can get,” Murray said.
When such things happen, the “reactor automatically shuts down,” Murray said, and diesel generators fire up to keep water circulating around the plant’s core to prevent a meltdown.
Engineers are trained to distinguish the different sounds of multiple sirens, as well as hundreds of graphs and charts that reflect various measurements.
Even with simulated massive failures designed to disable a number of systems, it’s nigh impossible “to get this thing to break,” Murray said.
Training at the simulator station occurs every six weeks for the plant’s engineers. “It’s a lifelong school,” Murray said.
There are two paths to become an engineer at Wolf Creek. The first is to get a degree in electrical or chemical engineering, which is a direct path into the control room, followed by 18 to 24 months of training at the plant. The more circuitous route is to work as an equipment operator who advances to become a reactor operator who then is promoted to work in the control room.
Murray has a degree in chemistry and began his career in the Navy working on nuclear-powered submarines. He has worked at Wolf Creek for 11 years.
There’s a need for nuclear engineers, Murray said, and encouraged those interested to begin with an understanding of chemistry.