Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Are U.S. Navy Diesel Engines Used at Nuclear Plants?

citylights2-greg-palast_t180Investigative journalism. Works well when reporters do their homework, but is questionable when they make up their own facts.

This week I ran across an article in the San Diego Reader on an interview with Greg Palast – “corporate fraud investigator turned investigative journalist.” For those of you who always buy into anything under the veil of “investigative journalism,” I’m here to point out where it can sometimes get iffy.

In the interview with Palast, The Reader says:

Diesel engines take time to warm up before they reach full power-generating capacity. But these massive engines, with base horsepower ratings well into the thousands (and subsequently doubled by strapping on a turbocharger), need to be online and running at full capacity in 10–12 seconds after a failure occurs in order to avert disaster. Frequently harvested from retired cruise ships, the engines simply aren’t capable of firing up as required.
Frequently harvested from retired cruise ships? What? I know the industry works closely with former U.S. Navy nukes, but I didn’t think they were THAT close.

I immediately took his claim to NEI’s Principal Engineer Vijay Nilekani who straight out called it FALSE. Here’s his response:
All diesel engines in U.S. nuclear plants come from just three manufacturers (Fairbanks Morse, TransAmerica and I think the third one is General Motors). Although it is true that the same manufacturers do make diesel engines for ships, the diesels supplied to the nuclear industry are “nuclear quality grade,” which means they are very high quality and cost many times more. Also, all spare parts for maintenance are nuclear quality grade as well, coming from the original manufacturer. Unauthorized substitution of parts if not permitted by Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations.
What about their reliability? Are they really as faulty as Palast claims? Nilekani’s answer:
Even though diesel engines are rarely used in the real world for an actual electrical emergency because the transmission systems in the U.S. are very reliable, they still undergo rigorous preventive maintenance per manufacturers’ recommendations (and usually every two years are replaced with new parts). All diesel engines are tested every month to make sure that they start within the required time, load the emergency buses, etc. Even the diesel fuel is inspected and tested to make sure that it is very high quality. There is also a lot of predictive maintenance performed, such as lubricant analysis or vibration analysis, which have helped to keep their reliability in the upper 90th percentile.
Whew! So basically, it looks like Palast’s personal agenda of “exposing” the nuclear industry for putting profit before safety has hindered his ability to actually investigate the topic and report the truth. Go ahead and count me out for buying his latest book, although, I’m sure that it would make for some very interesting reading….

Photo: Greg Palast featured in San Diego Reader

5 comments:

seth said...

You should amend your article to note that all US nukes have several hours of battery backup which allows plenty of time for diesels to get online.

Anonymous said...

Is it acceptable under NRC regulations for such diesel generators to be "harvested" from previous applications and repurposed for nuclear power plants, provided they are refurbished and meet all safety-grade and N-stamp requirements? Maybe that's what he's talking about?

gmax137 said...

Seth - the batteries supply DC loads and instruments which require 120 volt AC (thru inverters to make AC from the battery's DC). The diesel generators power large motors at 440 or 4160 volts AC. To respond to a loss of grid power, the plants need both the batteries and the diesel generators.

Anon - I have never heard of anyone buying used diesel generators. The NRC's involvement would be in regards to the Quality Assurance program requirements for material certificates and inspections during the original manufacture of the equipment. So, "No" it is not acceptable under the NRC regulations.

seth said...

Sorry Gmax please try to do some research before you post. The batteries do indeed provide 4 hours minimum of cooling pump power as well as keeping the lights on during a grid/reactor shutdown.

Anonymous said...

Er - when pointing out someone's mistake, it's best not to make a glaring one yourself, and in the title no less...

"cruise ships" surely refers to passenger vessels - I've never heard this term used for navy ships.