Failing to Maintain the Big Picture

by J.H. Stewart Melville III

To give the reader some context to this story, I have to begin by telling you a little about me.  I’m almost 40 years old and have worked in the nuclear industry for nearly 20 years.  A little over a decade of it was spent in the U.S. Navy as a submarine reactor operator.  I completed three deployments in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, and was honorably discharged in 2008.  When I transitioned out of the Navy I was fortunate enough to get a job in the commercial nuclear industry.  I have spent the last eight years working at the James A. FitzPatrick Nuclear Power Plant in Oswego, NY.

Shortly after I arrived in New York, the NRC approved the license renewal for my plant, which extended its license to 2034.  Let’s be frank, I could do the math.  That meant I had the opportunity to work at this site until I was 57 years old.  I also met and married my wife, bought a house, and had a son.  I was happy, and things seemed fairly stable for the foreseeable future.

FitzPatrick is great, and has afforded me many opportunities.  I was able to apply the skills that I learned in the Navy and began by using them in the Instrumentation and Control Maintenance Shop.  I have met some incredible people that have mentored me and have assisted me in my personal and professional development.  My first job was as a procedure writer, and in a few years, I became a maintenance-first line supervisor.  I qualified as a root cause analyst, and attended more seminars than I can even remember on procedure writing, supervisory skills, systematic problem solving, and human performance skills.  Ultimately, I returned to what I loved best, operating a nuclear power plant.  I received my Senior Reactor Operator license in April of 2016.

I always prided myself on my ability to see the big picture.  Whether it was the integrated plant impact of the maintenance we performed, the that role my department (and others) played in the safe and error free operation of the plant, or understanding why my managers and directors made the decisions they made.  I kind of prided myself in that skill.

With that said, I have to admit, I took the closure announcement of Vermont Yankee as a warning.  But in my mind, Fitzpatrick was different.  Entergy invested nearly 100 million dollars into the plant in 2014.  In Vermont, they loathe nuclear power.  In Oswego, they love it.  We have three nuclear plants in this city.  The plants are part of the community.  It seems like everyone has a parent, aunt, uncle, sibling, or neighbor who works at one of the plants, or retired from them.  We contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to local charities annually, and contribute countless volunteer hours.

But yet, here I am.  I am licensed Senior Reactor Operator whose plant is scheduled to close in January of 2017.  Even more shocking to me, there are approximately a half-dozen plants facing a similar fate before the end of the decade.  I currently spend my days laying out the abandonment plans for the systems that I spent a better part of a decade learning down to the smallest detail.

How did this happen?  In simple terms, the loss of the big picture, on two fronts.  I failed to see my responsibility to ensure that nuclear power was being advocated for.  The country failed to recognize the value of the carbon neutral energy which nuclear power plants provide.

With regards to the first failure, I never thought that my plant could really close early.  No one would believe that you could retire a nuclear power plant early, especially having earned the highest INPO rating, and being in a community that fully supported nuclear power.  The more I analyzed my situation, the more I realized that I had only maintained the big picture inside of one nuclear power plant.  I never worried about who was advocating for nuclear power on a state and national level.  I failed to understand the economic climate surrounding power generators.  I failed to ensure that I was part of a group (or groups) which advocated the benefits of nuclear power.  That I have since rectified.

With regards to the second failure, I have to admit that I am no expert.  Inside the ANS I am sure are members holding doctorates in every aspect of the operation of a nuclear power facility.  But, I am a voracious learner.  I have made it my sole purpose in the last few months to fully investigate every aspect of what could have happened to allow us to get to the point where the premature retirement of a multi-billion-dollar nuclear facility is the best choice for an owner.  I’ve read articles (some of which I will reference at the end of this document) which detail the impending horrors associated with climate change, the carbon footprint of various power sources, the economic impact of premature plant closure, and the economics of power generation.  I attended symposiums on power generation in the 21st century.  I have attended the NY State presentations on Reforming Energy Vision (REV).  From this I was able to draw five conclusions:

  • Climate change is inevitable under our current regulations.  As a result, major changes need to be made to how CO2 is generated to prevent significant climate change in the next century.
  • With our current technology, Nuclear Power is the only technologically-viable and large scale solution to fight climate change.  Additionally, combined heat and power would make the largest impact instead of looking at electricity consumption alone.
  • Nuclear power generation is routinely given zero economic credit for being a carbon neutral resource.  Routinely the word “renewable” is used instead of “carbon-neutral” or “carbon efficient” (since everything has a carbon footprint using current technology).  This places nuclear power generators in the position to advocate how their carbon footprint is smaller than “renewable” resources, and they have a larger positive ecological impact.
  • Retirement of nuclear power leads to increased CO2 output.
  • Electricity markets are regulated on a state level.  Nuclear Power is regulated federally by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).  As a result, changes in state power markets would have to be duplicated 50 times to make a real change.  Why?

As a result of everything that I have listed above, I generated this petition:

I believe that changes in the regulation of carbon efficient power need to be made at a federal level, and I want the federal government to institute policies that recognize the special and unique benefits of nuclear power.  The federal government regulates the licensing and operation of nuclear power plants, but leaves it to the individual states to determine the value of their carbon efficient electricity.  This makes little sense to me.  When the decision was made to remove R-12 Freon or cigarettes from common usage, they were effectively taxed into being economically non-viable.  Why isn’t this happening for CO2 generation?  Why should it have to happen in each individual state?

I implore you to login to the website above and sign the petition.  We need to fight climate change.  We need an answer from the federal government on why they only regulate a portion of nuclear power.  We need to prevent the premature retirement of fully viable carbon efficient power generators.

Stewart MelvilleJ.H. Stewart Melville III is currently the decommissioning senior reactor operator (SRO) at Fitzpatrick. He is a member of the American Nuclear Society and is a part of the Decommissioning & Environmental Sciences Division, as well as the Operations and Power Division.



17 thoughts on “Failing to Maintain the Big Picture

  1. LI

    US talking about nuclear reactore similar with Cuba’s drivers wowing to extend the life of their actual cars.
    Good luck with no vision.

  2. Stephen Maloney

    “Would gas generation be cheaper than existing nuclear if it was treated like nuclear?”

    I always enjoy hypotheticals such as posed by Mr. Hopf. It begs so many questions, the most important being “who decides” on what the costs are? How reliable are those estimates?

    Even in our centrally planned economy, the market sets a lot of prices, not some ministry or directorate. Those price estimates in future years reflect extraordinary uncertainties, starting with the cost of capital.

    And, just how good are those estimates? Watch the Fed flop around trying to centrally plan capital markets. Did anyone in 2008 really think they would be printing free money 8 years later?

    Or, go back some 15 years to the “dawn” of the nuclear renewal. How many of those pro formas panned out?

    Or, take Fukushima. For all the reactor safety and licensing studies, did anyone accurately or reliably compute that risk? Or the pollution damages?

    We do know that since its very beginning, nuclear construction costs have been consistently underestimated by upwards of an order of magnitude. So, even when it involves something as simple as construction costs, nobody seems to be able to accurately and reliably predict costs in the decade or so.

    Clearly, nobody knows what things cost even in the near future. Of course, that doesn’t stop people like Mr.Hopf from suggesting we price the value of CO2 generated by gas-fired plants. He asks someone “guarantee that those wastes remain contained for a million years?”. Why a million? Why not 100 million? Or, 10,000 like the proverbial requirements for bottling up high-level nuclear waste?

    Mr. Hopf claims the “[n]uclear is required to spend excessive sums of money to reduce even the chance of pollution to near zero”. Near-zero. Fukushima demonstrates that when several US-designed BWRs and their fuel pools fail, they fail catastrophically with quite significant third-party damages. Ask a farmer in Fukuhshima whether TEPCo spent excessive sums of money to reduce the chance of pollution from nuclear operations to near zero.

    Mr. Hopf seems to like to use taxes to tilt the table in favor of his livelihood by taxing competing technology.

    But, if he thinks taxes should be used to cover third-party damages, I would argue why not apply his tax concept to nukes – have nuclear operating companies fully guarantee third-parties from the losses from a Fukushima accident – the proverbial “Class IX” NRC once debated and discarded after TMI (just as they discarded after Fukushima). In other words, lift the liability caps, and remove the Federal Government from underwriting the risks to third parties in excess of the mutual insurance.

    If we take his tax approach, we could have the $500 billion+ in third party damages and cleanup from one Fukushima funded over, say, 10 years. That’s $50 billion per year tax on the nuclear industry, allocated on a Mwe basis. Your typical 1000 Mwe nuke would be taxed at ~$50 million per year.

    And, when the plants shutdown at end of life, they get to keep their contributions to the fund just like the decommissioning fund.

    It would be interesting to see how confident nuclear operators would be in their plant designs when they have to put skin in the game to cover the risk of third party pollution damages.

  3. ned childs

    The uranium fission enterprise is the single most foolish, unnecessary, government sponsored boondoggle in the world’s entire history. No fission power was ever necessary to power the civilian electric grids around the world. We were lied to about this from the 1940’s onward. The daughter isotopes produced by uranium fission are fiendishly toxic to practically all known life forms on planet Earth. These fission products are routinely released into the shared environment of planet Earth during refueling, regular venting, mining and milling, and nuclear power plant accident, such as at Fukushima. Those people who advocate for continued use of this poisonous technology to produce electric power, which is largely wasted, should be treated as environmental criminals or criminally insane. It was never cheap. It was never green. It was never safe. And, worst of all, it was never necessary.

    One plays Russian Roulette only if one is forced to. With uranium utilization we have lost an unnecessary game of Russian Roulette played on behalf of planet Earth by evil uranium mongers who don’t care about the excess cancers and leukemia. Pro-nuke spokespeople spout lies as truth and are an abomination. And sadly, they believe their own lies. They need to re-think this absurd atomic obsession.

    Respectfully yours.

  4. Jim Hopf

    Would gas generation be cheaper than existing nuclear if it was treated like nuclear? That is, if it had to contain (bottle up) all of its wastes/toxins (including CO2) as opposed to being able to just release them, en masse, into the atmosphere? And guarantee that those wastes remain contained for a million years?? Don’t think so.

    Nuclear is required to spend excessive sums of money to reduce even the chance of pollution to near zero (i.e., to be a clean energy source) but then policy places it in direct competition with dirty (fossil) sources that get to pollute the environment for free, It is not given credit for its non-polluting nature like renewables do.

    This is all an example of how the double standards have been there so long that people don’t even recognize their presence. They wouldn’t even recognize a fair, level playing field.

    I get a sense that you guys (above) don’t support subsidies or mandates for renewables either. But any notion of a level playing field between nuclear and fossil must consider pollution impacts. For the playing field to be level, either fossil fuels should be required to contain all their wastes (as discussed above) or nuclear regulations and requirements should be *drastically* reduced. How is it that extremely rare instances of polluting the environment are not acceptable but routine, mass pollution of the environment (by fossil fuels) is?

    Barring an outright ban of fossil plant pollution (i.e., actually treating them like nuclear) at a minimum their pollution and CO2 emissions should be heavily taxed. But you guys will object to such a “market intervention”. You have no notion that allowing fossil plants to freely pollute while requiring nuclear to spend whatever it takes to not pollute, ever, constitutes an enormous market intervention.

  5. Michael Liesenfelt

    “I failed to see my responsibility to ensure that nuclear power was being advocated for.”

    “The country failed to recognize the value of the carbon neutral energy which nuclear power plants provide.”

    You also failed to investigate the EIA AER natural gas data which governs the economics you alluded to. Based upon the proven supply and current demand ratio (~13:1) natural gas will remain cheaper than nuclear for a very long time, probably 10 to 20 years.




  6. Stephen Maloney

    Dr. Fleming claims nuclear can compete in the free market and observes government intervention creates distortions. I buy the latter point.

    But I question nuclear’s ability to operate in a free market.

    From a US GAAP perpective, commercial nuclear power has a lot of similarities to Fannie Mae, “ground zero” of the banking crisis of 2007-2008. Fannie carried trivial loss reserves against its mortgage backed securities. Fannie also applied lax underwriting standards – in other words, no risk management. When the housing bubble eventually collapsed, as such inevitabilities do, they relied on the Federal Government for a bailout.

    Nuclear power has trivial mutual insurance. It relies on Federal caps on third party damages to protect licensees from third party claims, not unlike TEPCo’s “nuclear put” of its enirmoys damage claims onto the Japanese Governmrnt.

    So, sure, in a “freer” market, maybe nuclear could compete. But in a free market, operating companies would also be liable for the risk of a reactor accident – no Federal liability caps. Unlike Fannie, which is a GSE, nukes couldn’t get insurance coverage for Fukushima-scale claims. And would likely shutdown.

  7. Richard Hyland

    Mr. Mellville has missed the big picture himself. The State of New York no longer has any regulatory impact upon operating nuclear power plants in New York State. All of the nuclear power plants located in the State are in the hands of private operators. These private operators; i.e., Entergy, Excelon, First Energy, etc., are essentially regulated for safe operation by the NRC. With safety covered the only other control is economics. Either the plant makes money, is profitable, or not. Entergy bought Fitzpatrick on the cheap, say approximately 10 cents on the dollar. They have operated Fitzpatrick for the last ten to fifteen years and because the O&M costs associated with the plant, which are high due to the nature of the beast, their return on investment is or has decreased to a level where continued operation is no longer viable. Cheap natural gas has put a real kibosh on nuclear power. Wind and solar are also contributing factors. Add to that Governor Cumo’s inherent dislike of nuclear power and “Wallah” you have the current situation.

    In 1972 when I came into the industry with Westinghouse it looked great. New plants were being sold, qualified personnel were needed – everything was wonderful. In 1975 no new units were contracted for and Jane Fonda, et al. were on the attack In 1979 TMI occurred and the nuclear world started to slowly collapse. In 1986 when there were faint murmurings of a recovery Chernobyl happened and the industry worldwide went into hibernation. The industry woke up and slowly started to come back but in 2011 Fukushima Daiichi happened and the world is still holding its breath as a result.

    I hate to say it but Mr. Mellville, like us “old farts” from the late ’70’s early ’80’s needs to find another career. Nuclear power is dead in the US for the foreseeable future.

  8. Stephen Maloney

    Mr. Melville’s posting floated by me on Linked-in. I also saw some of the rather predictable responses. “The public doesn’t recognize risk”. “We need to educate the public about nuclearl”. “We need to petition the government for a bigger piece of the subsidy pie”. “Nuclear can save the world from global catastrophe a hundred years from now”. “Free markets don’t exist anywhere”. Yada yada, yada, blah, blah, blah. Surprised the “climate change denier” smear hadn’t made it yet. At some point, a “true believer” will get cornered by the science and whip that out – they always do. Normally, I read this stuff and move on.

    But, then I caught Tom Clements’s absolutely spot-on comment. Let me add a few hard realities. The Feds take in 60 cents on each dollar it spends. China isn’t buying our Treasuries anymore – only the Federal Reserve. So, we are fast becoming Japan with the labor depression that never ends, ever rising costs (and asset prices), and industries propped up by monetized debt. The nuke industry is currently propped up by subsidies enforced by the state – think “weekend at Bernie’s”. Such is the inevitable end from all centrally planned enterprises. Free markets mercifully kill off such dinosaurs while governments go bankrupt trying to control nature.

    But, rather than getting into the “whose subsidy is more deserving” conversation, let’s get serious about Mr. Melville’s career planning.

    Maybe his petition to join the “global warming crusade” prevails and he can continue living where he lives with his accustomed lifestyle. Maybe not, in which case maybe he gets a job elsewhere and (gasp) has to relocate. Or, perhaps, he’s simply out – period – like lots of other Americans now and in the past. The “Mr. Melvilles” in those industries couldn’t sign up for the “global warming” gravy train. They never got the subsidy though they’ve certainly paid for others.

    For starters, Mr. Melville can’t say he never saw this coming. Two decades ago, nukes were selling for the cost of the fuel onsite back in to 90s. In many places, wholesale energy markets have been deregulating to the benefit of those paying the bills (except for the RPS set-asides) so the hand-writing has been on the wall for a long time. Clunkers end up in junk yards. Not much of a career opportunity repairing clunkers.

    But, ok, not everyone stays up on current events. I get it. So, we’re talking the here and now. Mr. Melville (and others in his situation) has some choices on what to do.

    Mr. Melville can beg for a handout from a bankrupt government which seems to be his immediate action. That seems to be the American way these days – demand your “fair share” from someone else, and tell yourself you’re saving the world a hundred years from now. Good luck with that.

    Or, he can change careers like a lot of other people did when they saw the handwriting on the wall or were unceremoniously tossed out on the street.

    If he changes careers, he might have to relocate (gasp!). It might not be easy. He might have to apply his education and training in a different venue. But, that’s what most people do in the real world – the world outside of the government subsidy. The world without CWIP, “RPS set-asides”, and government-protected jobs, no matter how expensive and obsolete they may be.

    I can certainly say there’s a lot more upside to living in the real world, than wallowing in a centrally planned industry and calling a “weekend at Bernie’s” a career success.

    Good luck, Mr. Melville. Choose wisely.

  9. Dr. Thomas Fanning

    New nuclear can compete in a fair market. The problem is that the current market is not free of political manipulation geared toward particular outcomes. We have been living off the lingering capital investments made by previous generations and now refuse to make long-term investments for our future generations (both capital and environmental). Here in Illinois, political gridlock and short-sighted policies will eventually lead to escalating energy prices. The 50% share in nuclear electric generation that we currently enjoy will decline, and rates will increase.

  10. William Davey

    Most environmental impact arguments seem to ignore the wasteful shift to “clean” natural gas for electricity production. The absolute best natural gas plants have a thermal efficiency of 60% (older ones are much lower). That means that we’re losing 40% of all the gas supplied up the smokestack! This is a terrific waste of an irreplaceable natural resource. My furnace at home is over 90% efficient – seems like a smarter way to use natural gas to me.

  11. Daniel Conlan

    This is in reply to Mr. Clements comments, I believe Mr Melville isn’t referring to building new reactors but to not shut down plants that are not only built, but are approved to run long into the future and are top performing units. I can empathize with your concerns for high electric rates and the possibility of future rates. As a resident of New York State we pay some of the highest electric rates in the U.S. at an average of 16.25 kWh, (South Carolina = 9.67 kWh) but I highly doubt that our rates will decrease by eliminating a 24 hour a day, 7 day a week 365 day a year source of electricity that nuclear power provides.

  12. Ted Bergner

    I am 62 and counting my navy nuclear time, I have about 44 nuclear years and the remainder consulting in several power production areas, fossil, gas and hydro. Retired, happily now, I still keep up with the industry a bit thanks to the many great people I met along the way. Mike Derivan, Bill O’Connor, Kerby Tyger, John Moyers, and many more. Like you, I spent a lot of my time in Operations, plant operator, reactor operator, senior reactor operator, operations manager, training manager, director of organization development. Most of my career, I spent considerable time speaking with local community groups and seminars on the benefits of and inherent soundness of the nuclear power industry. Not that it was all wasted time, but we’ve never had the political energy needed to fully advocate the industry’s value. Little people like me would not and could not create the power needed to move the nation. It is not our fault. I would not know who to blame, nor do I give a hoot now. Sometimes, stupidity rules and that’s just the way it is.

  13. Mike Chambers

    “But a huge problem with new reactors is they can’t compete in the free market.” I think Tom completely missed the point of this article and the references. It is not a free market. Never really has been. Renewables, have the advantage is that they are paid in advance by everyone, through federal subsidies (taxes), especially wind power (think bird Cuisinart) that has completely distorted the current electric market. Vs. the ratepayers paying for the source. If the CO2 “costs” were uniformly applied to the different electric generation sources then existing and new reactors would become the new cheap source.

  14. Tom Clements

    I can sympathize with the writer. But a huge problem with new reactors is they can’t compete in the free market. A main reason that new nuclear power plants are under construction here in South Carolina and Georgia is because the legislatures in each state allow financing costs to be collected in advance from rate payers. And, state laws stipulate that all risks and all costs be shifted to the rate payer from the companies and shareholders.

    Here in SC, we are about to get hit with the 9th pay-in-advance CWIP rate hike – the first one coming in 2009 – for the two AP1000s under construction at VC Summer. According to the SC Office of Regulatory Staff, we are already paying 16% of our bill as a nuclear construction charge and by the time the first unit starts in 2020 – more delays could happen – we could be paying a whopping 25% of our bill for the nuclear project and that will be before the much large capital (construction) costs go into the rate base. What will happen to rates then?! Costs of the projects keep going up and the beleaguered rate payer is taking it on the chin.

    If this non-free-market approach – legislated by politicians – is the model for new reactor construction then these four AP1000 units could be the last ones built for a long time to come. Stay tuned to see if residential, industrial and business customers in SC start pushing back against this situation.

    — Tom Clements, Savannah River Site Watch, Columbia, SC

  15. George Silvestri

    Have you ever heard about photosynthesis? It has been known for hundreds of years. It is the process whereby sunlight enables plants to strip the Carbon from Carbon Dioxide and releasing Oxygen into the atmosphere. The Carbon along with water is incorporated into the plant structure and depending on the type of plant can result in lumber or fruits or vegetables.
    A major source of Carbon dioxide is rotting vegetation and volcanoes.

    We have an ecosystem where plants need Carbon dioxide and animals need Oxygen. It is, if you will, a grand alliance where plants and animals coexist. Remove one or the other and you ensure the destruction of all life, vegetable and animal.

    I am a retired mechanical engineer who was employed in a sector of the electric power industry for over 40 years. I have worked on projects where fossil, and nuclear fuels were used.
    George J. Silvestri, Jr.

  16. Jim Hopf

    A less long reference for the total net CO2 emissions of various electricity sources is the table (at the link below) which is published by the IPCC, i.e., the world’s formal global warming body. It’s a summation of all the studies done that estimate the net CO2 emissions of each source. The table gives the range of estimates (among the studies) for each source.

    Using the median estimates for each source, the data show that nuclear’s overall emissions are negligible compared to fossil fuels, and are several times lower than most renewable sources (including biomass, hydro, geothermal and solar). Nuclear is roughly tied with wind as the lowest-emitting source of all.

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