Meeting the challenge Plant workers shift into high gear to stay ahead of schedule in stopping, restarting power equipment to reach goal of starting, restarting power equipment Teamwork boosts stop-and-go pace sets record for stopping and restarting equip
By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
It isn't easy to idle a 750-acre uranium enrichment plant using as much electricity as a major city, and it's just as hard to restart the equipment.
The 1,500 employees of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant do it every summer when power costs get too expensive to operate. But this summer, they did it more and faster than ever in a monumental effort to keep the plant viable.
"Our plant has a history of rising to the occasion," said Operations Manager Mike Buckner. "You feel the interest, the teamwork, the focus and the knowledge of the work force everywhere you go."
The plant has virtually stopped production during hot weather in recent years as power costs soar with increased national demand. Wholesale utility deregulation has pushed prices even higher, often doubling or tripling the plant's normal cost of just over $20 per megawatt-hour used. Last year, the plant's power bill averaged about $18 million a month.
In 1998, a stifling national heat wave shot the price to a whopping $2,000 and threatened to shut down the plant — more than half of whose production costs are in power — unless production was idled.
While power costs were going up, prices for the plant's product, units of enriched uranium for use in nuclear fuel, were going down. The summer of 1998, when USEC Inc. was privatized to run the government-owned plant more like a business, saw a glutted world market grow worse as the company kept importing overpriced Russian uranium for nuclear disarmament.
Earlier this year, while USEC pondered closing the Paducah plant or its sister plant at Piketon, Ohio, Paducah workers tried something new. They set, and met, a summer goal of shutting down about 80 percent of production equipment and dropping to 175 megawatts of power. For three months, the plant ran at only 6 percent of capacity, the lowest production level since it opened nearly 50 years ago.
Workers accomplished the job in five weeks, two weeks faster than planned, and did preventive maintenance on the massive equipment. Then in a 40-day period, they restarted most of the idled equipment by Oct. 1 and will add the rest during the winter. The recovery rate was 25 percent better than last year and 50 percent better than 1998.
The effort was in time for cheaper power on the open market and a new, 10-year contract with the Tennessee Valley Authority that will help stabilize prices. Production now is 10 times greater than it was in July.
"This level of performance on the part of the Paducah team is very important because it allows us to explore new possibilities in effectively utilizing seasonal production, something that's necessary in today's environment," said Jim Miller, USEC executive vice president.
While Paducah set records, USEC decided to close the Piketon plant next June. That word was bittersweet, but not completely unexpected, said Dave Gourieux, manager of the summer outage program.
"If we had not had the demonstrated (power and equipment) flexibility at our plant, I personally don't think we could continue to operate," Gourieux said.
"It was clearly a factor in the decision the company made on which plant to continue to operate," said Steve Penrod, enrichment plant manager.
Penrod and Buckner described the summer's work as monumental because:
It had to be done as many contractors finished a $72 million seismic upgrade using structural steel in the huge process buildings where the shutdown took place. The plant was simultaneously starting a critical, heavily documented program to increase its enrichment levels to become a stand-alone facility by next spring.
It involved hundreds of union and salaried workers to identify, plan, schedule and coordinate. There were five minor injuries and no releases of mildly radioactive, hazardous uranium hexafluoride (UF6), 700,000 pounds of which had to be purged from the equipment for shutdown and recharged for startup.
"It's tough work and there's really no margin for error," Buckner said. "We had a tremendous amount of help from the (atomic workers') union."
Crews wrestle with voluminous permits and paperwork, and must explicitly follow procedures. Ken O'Brien, who recently left the plant after several years as senior resident inspector for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said USEC workers have made great strides in cell shutdown and startup in each of the past three summers.
At first, the NRC questioned how well employees were documenting, training and following rules, O'Brien said.
"The key from our perspective is them truly knowing what they need to do to maintain safety to both operate the plant and change its modes from full power to reduced power," he said. "That's what we're seeing now."
Michael Brunn is one of more than 80 instrument mechanics calibrating instruments that check cells' temperature and pressure. The gauges are among 85,000 instruments in the plant, which has about 160 buildings.
"One of the biggest things in the summer is maintaining and replacing control valves," he said. "Every instrument that's used in the plant, we calibrate."
Tim Pritchard and other operators are responsible for monitoring the whole process. "We check and double-check every component to be sure it's working," he said. "This has definitely been a cooperative effort."
Randal Cox, a 34-year-old electrician from Symsonia, said working on a 15,000-volt cell sometimes requires a full body suit in heat well above 100 degrees. The cell has to be safely shut down, vacuumed, inspected, tested and put back in service.
The process takes one to two weeks, with shutdown and startup requiring series of phone calls linking the command center with the process building control room, control panel and cell floor.
"It's a lot of work," Cox said. "I'm married with two children and this is my livelihood. I left another job that paid almost equal and came here because I thought it was better choice. I very much want to stay."