NASA's Plum Brook test reactor near Sandusky operated safely for 11 years. Lessons learned at the facility in the 1960's were disseminated throughout the growing nuclear industry. Today that chapter of history is closing, as NASA prepares to decommission the reactor. But former engineers says there's still a future for nuclear power, even in the aftermath of Three Mile Island and recent events at the Davis-Besse nuclear plant. ideastream's Karen Schaefer reports.
Karen Schaefer: NASA actually ran two reactors at its Plum Brook Station during the 1960's The 60-megawatt test reactor was designed to study the effects of radiation on materials used in space flight. A much smaller 100-kilowatt mock-up reactor was used to make sure those experiments would work. Both reactors were closed in 1973 and their spent fuel shipped off-site. This year, Senior Project Engineer Keith Peecook says NASA is beginning the work that will finally decommission the facility.
Keith Peecook: What we are going to achieve with decommissioning here is a family could take up residence on the site, they could live on the site, raising their crops, drinking the groundwater, and the level of exposure that would result would still not represent a health risk.
KS: Before the main reactor can be removed to a low-level nuclear waste disposal site, Peecook says his team must first remove hundreds of tons of fixed equipment that fed experiments into the core and kept the reactor operating safely.
KP: The general area radiation inside there is about 2000 rem per hour. People could actually be down there in the dry quadrant working, with the reactor at power.
KS: And how are those retirees?
KP: Some of them are in their 80's and they're doing fine.
KS: Those same retirees say the most important accomplishment at Plum Brook was their 11-year record of safe operations, a record that was shared with the entire nuclear industry.
Jack Ross: I think the real satisfaction of our work was the fact that a very successful operation was made under very difficult circumstances and it was a safe operation, it worked safely, there were no major problems.
Jack Crooks: This is Jack Crooks. We did have a few incidents that we could categorize as of significance, something like the reactor head at one point experienced a loss of flow. That was something that wasn't supposed to happen, so we had back-ups. We had designed multiple layers of safety into the facility. And at times a layer may have failed and you needed to look at that to find the root cause and say, well, why did this fail? Did everything else do their job?
KS: But in 1979 - six years after Plum Brook was placed in cold storage - the partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island altered U.S. support for nuclear power.
JC: At one time, there were applications for some 250 reactors. But Three Mile Island clearly had a significant effect on the licensing and the construction of additional reactors after that date.
KS: Recent problems with the Davis-Besse nuclear plant near Toledo have once again brought home the lesson that human error can play a major role in the safety of nuclear power. NASA Plum Brook retirees say that's a lesson that should have been learned in the last generation.
JC: I spent 19 years with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. We had operating experience feedback programs. There were databases. If we saw things happen at one reactor, we would write information notices, we would put out generic letters, we would tell people, you don't have any choice. We want to know whether you can have that problem. If you can have the problem, then we want to know what your fix is. That stuff still goes on today. You don't catch all of them. I mean, you try to, but there are incidents and there will be incidents in the future.
KS: But perhaps it's not surprising that these nuclear pioneers believe a re-design of nuclear power plants could still hold promise for the future.
Len Homyak: The problem now is that each company wants to have bigger and better reactors - so they're all different. If you had nuclear reactors in the 500 to 800 MW range and they were punched out and they were all the same, after you decided that this one reactor was safe and a good configuration, you can have a safe system for the rest of your life.
JC: The NRC is in the process of approving standardized plant designs. I think we're all saying maybe the answer is you go with the smaller reactor and you go with the pebble bed reactor
KP: You look at some of the control panels and that and it looks just like 1960's vintage. Right there at that operator's station there used to be an ashtray. You know, put your butts here.
KS: Over the next two decades, more than half the nation's aging nuclear fleet will either need to be relicensed or be decommissioned and replaced. As Keith Peecook knows, decommissioning is an expensive process. It will cost NASA $160 million to demolish a facility that cost $15 million to build. But he believes it's worth it.
KP: The 500-acres around here, we had a study done by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources in '94 and they called this one of the finest stands of hardwood wetlands in northern Ohio. I personally would like to see this land become part of the Erie County Metroparks system.
KS: Although NASA will continue to operate other test facilities at Plum Brook, when the decommissioning of the reactor is finished in 2007, this final reminder of the dawn of nuclear power will fade into history. But former workers here say they hope the lessons learned forty years ago will not be forgotten. In Sandusky, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.