Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Nuclear Industry Skeptic Turns into Believer

My name is Jennifer Correa, and I am a mechanical engineer with Structural Integrity Associates. I have been in the nuclear industry for about 13 years. At Structural Integrity, I co-manage the Fatigue Management Product, which deals with the fatigue of metal components due to changes in pressure and temperature in nuclear power plants. If the conditions that lead to metal fatigue are managed well, the components can operate safely for many years, well beyond the original licensing period.

Jennifer Correa
Jennifer Correa
Before I came to Structural Integrity, I didn’t know much about nuclear power. I understood it at a basic level, but only so far as the introduction that I received as part of my general mechanical engineering coursework. It was kind of mysterious and I had a vague idea that it was dangerous and risky. I’m a Californian and the opposition to nuclear power is strong in parts of this state. When I came to work for Structural Integrity, I was skeptical of nuclear power. Yet, over time, as I learned more about the design and operation of the plants, and about the regulatory environment in which the plants operate, I became convinced that nuclear power is an important part of our power mix and that we don’t take undue risks by having nuclear plants in our country.

My favorite part of my job is working with our clients to solve aging management issues. We help them determine the best course for their plant’s needs and then use our tools to meet those needs. This includes help with License Renewal Application preparation, ASME Section III fatigue analyses, Environmentally-Assisted Fatigue analysis, and so on. One of the tools of which I am especially proud is a cycle and fatigue management software called SI:FatiguePro 4.0, which we developed here at Structural Integrity (originally under EPRI sponsorship in the 1980s). Our software can be customized to the needs of each plant and is used to help manage fatigue by tracking plant transients and fatigue usage in critical components over time. With this software, plant engineers can monitor metal fatigue at their plants to ensure that cycle and fatigue limits are not exceeded. If any limits are projected to be exceeded, then the software gives them an early warning so that they can make plans to correct the issue before it becomes a problem.  

I think that the public would be more accepting of nuclear power if people understood the basics of how nuclear plants work. Most people would be surprised to learn that the amount of nuclear fuel used to operate nuclear plants is very small and that this fuel is used only as a heat source to turn water into steam, just like any other electrical generating plant that uses steam to run its turbines. The hyperbolic cooling towers, which have come to symbolize the nuclear power industry, are just cooling towers for secondary-side (non-radioactive) water – these types of towers are widely used in applications where large volumes of hot water must be cooled quickly, not just for generating nuclear power. The steam that we see coming out the top and the water being recirculated back into lakes, rivers, and oceans is closely monitored to ensure levels of radioactivity are well below federal limits. The water that runs through the reactors themselves, which does contain radioactive particles, is isolated from the water released back into the environment.  

Nuclear power generation is the only currently available method of generating large amounts of electricity, 24 hours a day, without producing any carbon emissions. Also, nuclear reactors do not emit any of the six air pollutants identified in the Clean Air Act: ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide or lead. In our current environment, we are focused on reducing carbon emissions, and this makes nuclear energy an extremely important part of the power generation mix for fighting pollution.  

The above post by Structural Integrity Associates is a part of NEI’s Powered by Our People promotion which showcases the innovators within the nation’s nuclear energy workforce.

For more on this promotion, follow the #futureofenergy tag across our digital channels. 

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