Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Nuclear Graduates and Safety Rockers

Ted Salem Community College in Carneys Point Township in New Jersey has graduated its first class of nuclear energy technology (or NET) students. This program was created in collaboration with PSEG and students did internships and other projects at the company’s plants. Corporate involvement might raise some hackles, leading an observer to question whether PSEG has helped create a program that solely fulfills its own personnel needs.

Nope.

The prestigious certificate is recognized by all U.S. nuclear utilities as meeting nuclear training requirements. Chattanooga State Technical Community College is the only other school awarding certificates this spring.

Now, NEI is involved with this program, so we certainly like the word “prestigious.” Regardless, the programs represent a real win, both for nuclear plants with aging work forces and student who want a route into the nuclear energy industry with some relevant experience under their belts – as is done with many other fields that might otherwise depend exclusively on apprentice programs. That’s prestigious enough for anyone.

Writer Tracey Wiggins has found Salem’s student body content with the program, interesting particularly because they are the first to experience it.

“Being the first to go through a new program, you don’t have the chance to hear from other students about what to expect,” said [Ryan] Pompper, a Lower Alloways Creek resident. “It was a lot different than what I thought it was going to be; it was a lot more interactive. It definitely exceeded my expectations.”

And we suspect there was an equal desire on the part of PSEG folks to share their knowledge.

“{PSEG employees] welcomed the opportunity to show the students their work on a day-to-day basis and teach them about safety, human performance and professionalism,” [Training Manager Peter] Tocci said. “Overall, both the employee and student gained from the experience.”

We realize this sounds too much like a testimonial – and Wiggins’ article does, too, a bit – so take a look at Salem’s own page for the program and judge for yourself. The first year focuses on standard college coursework, with a stress on the relevant scientific disciplines while the second year is largely given over to nuclear science and plant operations.

It seems a well-balance program – if you decide after the first year that it isn’t for you, you can switch programs without losing a ton of credits. And if you go on, you get a good grounding in both the practical and theoretical aspects of nuclear energy. Worth a look if your high school graduate is casting a net for interesting career possibilities.

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Ted Nugent has developed, unusually for a practitioner of the rock and the roll, a strong profile as a conservative activist. We’ve seen him occasionally espousing gun rights and assumed that represented his main enthusiasm, so we were interested to see him address energy issues in a Washington Times op-ed. He likes nuclear energy:

Nuclear energy is also despised by energy empty heads, yet it is the cleanest, safest and most efficient energy on the planet. America hasn't built a nuclear power plant in more than 30 years because of completely unfounded fears and sleeping bureaucrats, yet the 104 nuclear power plants we do have provide roughly 20 percent of America's energy needs.

Well, points for pugnaciousness, anyway, and he’s got the facts about right. But the overall thrust of the piece is an attempt to mitigate the impact of energy accidents by noting their relative rarity:

Mining for energy has always been a very dangerous and risky business. Future oil spills will happen, and more coal miners will get killed. It's the nature of the beast and also true because man has his imperfect hand involved. We should all be thankful these horrible things don't happen more often. We should thank the energy companies for that.

We agree that it’s good horrible things don’t happen too frequently  and also agree that using a disaster as an opportunity to militate against an entire industry is, er, opportunistic and unhelpful.

Where we part company with Nugent is the notion that Massey Energy and BP should be thanked rather than viewed with fishy eyes. The accidents on their watch must be carefully investigated to avoid similar ones from happening in the future.

But Nugent has no particular use for this approach. Too expensive.

I'm convinced the energy business could make mining for energy virtually risk-free, thereby making the risk of an oil spill very low. Few if any coal miners would ever get hurt or killed again. However, if such a risk-free model were adopted, the cost of energy would skyrocket and kill the American economy.

Well, no, no it wouldn’t. The goal is to implement a safety culture that privileges safety above all other issues. BP and Massey Energy understand safety – and what must be done to ensure it -  but evidence suggests they either made it tertiary to other concerns or tried to corrupt it. And the results were dire.

[BP engineers] went ahead with the [well] casing, but only after getting special permission from BP colleagues because it violated the company’s safety policies and design standards.

Read more here about what this is all about.

"When an MSHA inspector comes onto a Massey mine property, the code words go out, 'we've got a man on the property,"' {Gary] Quarles testified. "Those words are radioed from the guard gates and relayed to all working operations in the mine."

After that, workers are expected to do everything possible to quickly correct problems or divert the inspectors' attention from any issues, Quarles said.

Quarles lost a son to the disaster and the article does not say whether he is a miner himself. Read here for more.

Poke around Google for lots, lots more on how safety was skirted before both accidents and you’ll get a much better understanding of what Nugent calls “the nature of the beast.”

Ted Nugent.

4 comments:

SteveK9 said...

The Justice department is beginning a criminal and civil investigation of the BP accident. We should wait to see what happens, but if criminal behaviour is found then this is clearly not acceptable.

DocForesight said...

@SteveK9 -- Classic. Let's get more lawyers involved before the primary issue is resolved enough to divert attention to what is a needed and necessary investigation.

If Interior Secretary Salazar got his wish to "push BP out of the way" with whom would he replace them?

Rod Adams said...

@DocForesight - I understand your reluctance to get lawyers involved, but if there is not already a focused effort on gathering lessons learned and finding out all of the details for the "green table" investigation, there should be.

In the nuclear world, we work very hard to learn and share lessons to enable us to avoid making the same mistake twice or even to avoid making a mistake that someone else has already made.

There should be no doubt in anyone's mind that something very wrong happened at Deepwater Horizon. Whatever it was, it was not something that just happened, but it was a series of events that, hopefully, could have been broken by better actions by the people involved.

If the investigation turns up nothing that anyone did wrong, that would indicate to me a real need to halt all deepwater drilling. If, as I suspect, there were ignored warning signs that gave plenty of accident off ramps, then it might be possible to continue accessing energy reserves in deep water in a more safe and environmentally friendly manner by people who actually follow rules and focus on safety first, profit second.

(That mode does not ignore profit, it simply puts it in the correct priority order. If you focus on profit first, you often make mistakes that can eliminate decades worth of good will and profit opportunities.)

DocForesight said...

@Rod - No disagreement there. My response was in reference to the choices of action taken - the apparent priority of law suits over plugging the leak.

There has already been suggested that petroleum energy companies create a governing body to share "best practices" and oversight similar to what nuclear has. That would be helpful in restoring public trust.