Inside “NCIS: Los Angeles”: Nuclear myths and truths

If you watched the Jan. 4 episode of “NCIS: Los Angeles,” you got an inside look at a decommissioned nuclear energy facility. Well, sort of. The team investigates the radiation poisoning of a sergeant moonlighting as a security officer at a fictional decommissioned nuclear plant. And, while the popular CBS show accurately portrayed many details about nuclear energy, it took a few liberties to further its storyline. Here’s the truth about some of the nuclear myths spotted in this season’s 21st episode.

Working at a nuclear energy facility is safe and rewarding. Many scenes in this episode portray the fictional Santa Flora Nuclear Plant as a hazardous work environment with less than enthusiastic employees. For example, Callen suggests the security officer lied to his wife about the fact he was working at a decommissioned nuclear plant so she wouldn’t worry. Additionally, Hanna requests fast food rather than eating at the plant’s cafeteria saying “I prefer food that doesn’t glow in the dark.”

Duke Energy employee at Catawba Nuclear Station

Duke Energy employee at Catawba Nuclear Station

While these details may make the plot more interesting, the truth is, nuclear plants are among the safest and most secure industrial facilities in the United States. Cafeteria food at nuclear sites does not glow in the dark and radiation is limited to specific areas of a nuclear site only accessed by highly trained workers.

In addition, nuclear energy facilities support local economies by offering a variety of interesting careers with competitive salaries. In fact, nuclear is the largest job creator of any power source. Duke Energy’s nuclear fleet alone employs nearly 7,000 people in the Carolinas.

Decommissioned nuclear plants are actively monitored. The episode plays off the common misconception that safety and security is relaxed at decommissioned nuclear plants. Disgruntled employee, Dr. Leo Chadmont, explains his concerns about the fictional plant’s problems to Callen and Hanna: “We’re decommissioned, which means the water chemistry is never checked, tubes can rust, safety and contingency plans have been relaxed, cooling and back-up systems are never tested.”

Duke Energy's Crystal River Nuclear Plant

Duke Energy’s Crystal River Nuclear Plant

Chadmont’s depiction of the decommissioned plant, however, could not be further from the truth. Take, for example, Duke Energy’s Crystal River Nuclear Plant (CR3), which announced its retirement in 2013. Safety remains the plant’s top priority and CR3’s comprehensive emergency plans and around-the-clock security force remain in place. Radiological and environmental monitoring programs also continue during the entire decommissioning process.

Nuclear power plants responsibly manage used fuel. The climax of the show hinges around an explosion that threatens to drain water out of the plant’s used fuel pool, thus causing the fuel rods to melt. The lack of security and convenient access to the used fuel pools create a dramatic scenario found only on television.

In reality, not only does substantial security limit access to used fuel pools, but the pools themselves are constructed with several feet of steel-lined, reinforced concrete designed to withstand extreme force. The design and other safety measures would mitigate any effects of the unlikely actions seen in the show.

Although the real everyday operation of nuclear facilities is not dramatic, it’s certainly important. After all, without reliable, 24-7 power, how would you catch the next NCIS episode?

Nuclear First Responders: There When Needed

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When one hears the words “first responder,” the first thing that comes to mind are emergency medical technicians, fire fighters and police officers.

These are also the first responders at a nuclear facility — the medical emergency response team, the fire brigade and security.

Fire Brigade

Members of Duke Energy's nuclear plant's fire brigades regularly practice their skills with live fire training sessions at Gaston College in North Carolina.

Members of Duke Energy’s fire brigades regularly practice their skills with live fire training sessions at Gaston College in North Carolina.

Every commercial nuclear facility in the United States has its own fire department.

The purpose of the plant’s fire brigade is singular, to stop the spread of fire, in the event of a fire, at the plant.

All members of the fire brigade have been through training to serve on the plant’s fire brigade, and they regularly have drills and exercises to practice. Some members of the fire brigade have other nuclear jobs, such as maintenance technician or nuclear operator. But when the time comes, they change out of their regular work attire into their firefighting gear.

Security

Nuclear security officers have extensive training and often have experience in the military or police work.

Nuclear security officers have extensive training and often have experience in the military or police work.

Another nuclear first responder is security. Each Duke Energy nuclear facility is guarded 24 hours a day by an armed, well-trained security force.

Security officers maintain their high level of readiness through classroom courses, drills and practical exercises. They regularly drill, just like the fire brigade , to hone their skills and prepare for any situation.

Security officers usually come from a military or law enforcement background and are trained to protect the plant and employees. The NRC tests the readiness of nuclear security teams through a series of exercises, which simulate a planned attack on the plant. Security officers must prove through these exercises that they can respond to any attack on the plant quickly and effectively.

MERT
A subset of security is the Medical Emergency Response Team, or MERT. These individuals are ready at a moment’s notice to respond to any medical emergency on site.

All of these individuals train, prepare and refine their skills if they are ever called upon.

The number one priority at every nuclear facility is the safety of the public and employees. And the individuals in these jobs are the first to respond during an emergency.

Community leaders get inside look at Crystal River Nuclear Plant decommissioning

Don Taylor, 65, drove down the three mile access road and pulled into the visitor’s left lane at the Access Control Point – the first layer of security before coming onto plant property. A security officer cross-checked his driver’s license, looked for his name on the approved visitor’s list then searched his vehicle.

Taylor had traveled down that same access road thousands of times during the last decade. He knew exactly where to go and where to park. But this time was different. Taylor was coming to the Crystal River Nuclear Plant (CR3) not as a Duke Energy employee but as a participant in a special tour for local leaders.

Twelve elected officials and community leaders from Citrus and Levy counties visited CR3 for an inside look at decommissioning.

Twelve elected officials and community leaders from Citrus and Levy counties visited CR3 for an inside look at decommissioning.

Twelve elected officials and community leaders from Citrus and Levy counties joined Taylor for the four hour event, which included a presentation on CR3’s decommissioning plan, a walking tour of the plant and an informal question and answer session during lunch.

“The February 2013 decision to decommission CR3 was made after I retired,” said Taylor, who served Duke Energy for 35 years and worked as CR3’s financial manager between 1999 and 2012. “In my new role as Citrus County’s Economic Development Council director, I needed to understand the plant’s status and future plans. I was particularly concerned about job losses and wanted more details on the dry cask storage project.”

After processing through a second layer of security, similar to airport security, to get inside the plant’s perimeter, the group walked up a 30 foot berm, looked down and saw a grassy knoll where the new dry cask storage facility will be built by 2017.

All U.S. nuclear plants store used nuclear fuel at their site – either in fuel pools or dry casks – because the U.S. does not have a central federal repository for used nuclear fuel. CR3 has safely stored its used nuclear fuel in fuel pools since the plant’s first refueling in 1978.

05-22-14 Community Stakeholders Tour (4)During the tour, the group also saw the damaged concrete on the containment building, water tight doors that protect the plant during storms and equipment, such as turbine rotors, that may be re-sold. They visited the 1970s era, sea foam green colored control room and met operators focused on monitoring the used nuclear fuel, pools and related cooling systems.

“The tour was well organized and provided quality information and straight talk to hard questions,” Taylor said. “The up-close view of the containment building concrete damage was very helpful and put the containment issues in perspective. Visiting the control room and talking directly to operators was also beneficial.”

Will Bryant, an environmental health director for the Florida Department of Health in Citrus County, also enjoyed interacting with plant personnel.

“In my line of work, firsthand experience is priceless,” he said. “Duke’s personnel are top notch, and great care is placed on safety. I was most surprised by the condition of the plant. It’s remarkably clean and well kept.”

After the tour, participants completed a survey. The vast majority said the tour expanded their awareness and understanding of the decommissioning plan. They said plant staff was knowledgeable and answered questions completely and honestly. They also felt the plant would be decommissioned in a safe and cost-effective manner.

About CR3

  • After completing a comprehensive analysis of costs and risks, Duke Energy announced its decision to retire CR3 on Feb. 5, 2013, rather than pursue a first-of-its-kind repair to the plant’s containment building.
  • While replacing two 500-ton steam generators during a scheduled maintenance outage in 2009, engineers discovered a separation of concrete within the containment building that surrounds the reactor vessel. Though crews successfully repaired the concrete, they discovered additional damage in two other areas when working to return the unit to service in 2011.
  • CR3 operated between 1977 and 2009, producing on average 860 megawatts of generation. The plant is one of five units at the Crystal River Energy Complex located on Florida’s Gulf Coast approximately 85 miles north of Tampa. The other four units are coal-fired.

 Fast facts

  • Plant status: CR3 is in a safe, stable condition. The plant’s comprehensive emergency plans and full-time, around-the-clock security force remain in place.
  • Decommissioning plan: Duke Energy has selected the “SAFSTOR” decommissioning option, one of three options approved by the NRC and one chosen by several other retired U.S. nuclear plants. Under this option, the plant will remain in a safe, stable condition for 60 years until decommissioning work is completed in 2074. CR3 anticipates reaching its SAFSTOR condition by July 1, 2015.
  • Status of employees: About 230 employees remain on site as part of the decommissioning organization. Nearly 250 others have redeployed to other positions within Duke Energy. About 125 employees have left the company and were offered severance benefits. Over time, staffing at the site will become smaller.
  • Cost estimate: The estimated cost funded from the decommissioning trust is $1.18 billion (in 2013 dollars). With the SAFSTOR option, Duke Energy believes the nuclear decommissioning trust fund, including future growth of the fund and funds from our nine other owners, will be sufficient to decommission the plant without increasing customer rates. However, annual analysis will be required.
  • Near-term activities: Workers are preparing the containment building for long-term inactivity, removing systems no longer needed from service, constructing or reconfiguring other systems, continuing work to receive NRC approvals to transition CR3 from an operating plant to a decommissioning one and starting construction of a dry cask storage facility.

For more information about CR3, go to www.duke-energy.com/CR3. For more information on decommissioning nuclear plants, visit the NRC website, www.nrc.gov.