1973. It was a year of firsts. The first portable cellphone call is made. MRIs are invented. The hip hop music genre is created. Watergate hearings begin. Fed-Ex begins operations.
A lot happened in 1973, including a landmark for Duke Energy – its largest nuclear plant, Oconee Nuclear Station, began commercial operation of unit 1 in July 1973.
That was 45 years ago. Today, Oconee Nuclear Station continues to enjoy a long history of safe operation, providing clean, reliable, 24/7 electricity to Duke Energy customers.
The three-unit nuclear power plant in Seneca, S.C., provides electricity for roughly two million customers. Totaling approximately 2,554 megawatts, Oconee is one of the largest producers of electricity in the United States. It is one of six nuclear plants, with 11 generating units, operated by Duke Energy.
Fred Owens, of Six Mile, S.C., took his reactor operator licensing exam in June 1973 and was preparing for his role as a control room operator when Oconee unit 1 began operation on July 15, 1973.
"It was an exciting time," Owens said of his early days with Duke Energy – then Duke Power. "Our classes were conducted in an old white farmhouse that sat along the Keowee River."
That house, known as the Pleasant Alexander home, sat just south of the current Keowee Hydro Station near Oconee Nuclear Station and Old Pickens Church. The structure was moved to High Falls County Park and still serves as its registration office for campers.
Owens was from nearby Liberty, S.C., and was training to be a pilot in 1969 when a Duke Power employee approached him at the local airport about becoming a reactor operator.
"I went in for an interview with Ed Smith (station manager), and he talked to me about becoming a reactor operator," Owens said. "I was hired by Mr. Smith and began my career with Duke on April 20, 1970.
"Everything was brand new back then – there was a lot going on," he said, remembering training that included visits to the Lynchburg Pool Reactor and a Babcock and Wilcox test reactor.
The year 1973 was just the beginning for Owens. In 1974, he spent additional time training for his senior reactor operator license, which he received and operated under for 25 years. Within the Operations organization at Oconee, Owens earned several management roles, including that of shift manager through much of the '80s and '90s. Owens retired in 1999.
Oconee Nuclear Station grew a lot over the years, too. It became the first nuclear plant in the U.S. to receive accredited operator training, as well as the first nuclear station to generate 100 million kilowatt-hours of electricity.
Oconee Nuclear Station was the second nuclear station in the U.S. to have its license renewed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for an additional 20 years (the NRC initially licensed all U.S. reactors for 40 years) – that means Oconee will celebrate 60 years of safe operation in 2033.