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Fourth Quarter 1997
The Nuclear Professional

© 1997
National Academy for Nuclear Training

All rights reserved.

Photos by
Tommy Thompson

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"They’d make fun of our little plant. But this was after 1977, when Big Rock set a world record for 343 days of continuous operation. I’d say, ‘We just had a 343-day run. Can any of you say that?’"

 

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Nuclear & Technical Communication

Going Out in Style
Big Rock Point Retires after 35 Years
Big Rock Point Plant

Tim Petrosky is in the midst of the last minute storm of activity that happens the day before a thousand invited guests arrive. Yes, he agrees, order more soft drinks. Yes, let’s put the souvenir booklets out on the tables. He responds to a radio reporter’s questions. On the way over to a trailer where souvenir gift bags are being stuffed – one T-shirt, one coffee mug, one hat – he passes vendors installing a huge tent. He sends one back to the visitors’ center for safety glasses. The plant public affairs director says, "The last thing we need is to affect the safety record now."

It’s Aug. 28, 1997. Big Rock Point Nuclear Power Plant, the nation’s oldest and longest running nuclear power plant, is coasting down in power. Tomorrow, on the 35th anniversary of its operating license, the 67-megawatt plant will be shut down for the last time.

A nuclear pioneer
In 1959, Consumers Power Company (now Consumers Energy) announced it would build a nuclear power plant on Lake Michigan, near Charlevoix, a resort town where the wealthy had escaped the summer heat of Chicago and Detroit since the 1870s. In announcing the plant, company President Dan E. Karn called the project "a calculated step forward in the development of atomic energy for peacetime use."

The Bechtel Corporation and General Electric completed the plant – the United States’ fifth nuclear electric generating station – in 29 months for $27 million. Big Rock Point received its operating license from the Atomic Energy Commission Aug. 30, 1962, and reached initial criticality Sept. 9. Pulling the rods was Lee Hausler, the plant’s first manager. He recalls, "I pulled the first critical because I figured that as plant manager, I’d never get a chance to do it again."

In April 1960, Hausler, assistant manager of a Consumers’ coal plant, was offered the position of manager of the new plant. He recalls, "Practically all the staff was from coal plants. We had a nuclear engineer and health physics supervisor, but no one else had any nuclear background. Some of us went through a postgraduate type class at the University of Michigan during the summer of 1960, learning reactor theory and getting hands-on experience on the university’s reactor." Other workers took similar courses at a junior college. Some also went to training offered by General Electric in California and to Dresden Station Unit 1 and Yankee Rowe for additional experience.

The first five years of plant operation were devoted to research and development as part of the AEC’s Power Reactor Demonstration Program. The plant was the world’s first high-power-density boiling water reactor, and the research there led to the development of more efficient nuclear fuels for commercial nuclear power.

Other types of fuel testing continued. The plant used mixed-oxide fuel from 1969 to 1976 as part of a research program. For 11 years, the reactor was used to produce cobalt 60 for medicine and industry. The American Nuclear Society named Big Rock Point a Nuclear Historic Landmark in 1991 for the plant’s contributions to the nuclear and medical industries.

In 1966, Hausler, along with part of Big Rock Point’s original organization, left to start up Palisades, Consumers’ second nuclear plant. But there is still a Hausler at Big Rock Point. His son, Greg, became a shift supervisor at the plant.

Russ DeWitt, who replaced Lee Hausler, was one of the fossil plant engineers who volunteered to work at Big Rock Point. Cy Hartman, who started in chemistry at Big Rock Point in 1962, became plant manager in 1968 and stayed until his retirement in 1982. He was followed by Dave Hoffman, Tom Elward and Bill Beckman.

Pat Donnelly, now on loan to the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, was named plant manager in 1993. He recalls, "When I came to the plant as an auxiliary operator in 1969, there were 49 people, one secretary, no copy machines and no security. Now we have the largest security force in northern Michigan. We also have 17 copy machines and are the largest user of paper in the northern third of Michigan."

After the accident at Three Mile Island, Big Rock Point was faced with implementing the recommendations developed by the newly established Nuclear Regulatory Commission. For a plant this size, the cost would have been prohibitive. As a research facility, Big Rock’s design had a considerable built-in safety margin. In fact, GE’s Simplified BWR design uses many of the same concepts. Inside the spherical steel containment, there’s a million cubic feet of volume – the amount you might find today for plants 10 times more powerful. In response to Three Mile Island, the plant performed a risk assessment between 1979 and 1981, one of the first voluntary risk assessments following the 1975 WASH 1400 Reactor Safety Study. As a result of this analysis, Big Rock proposed modifications to enhance the safety of the plant, and the NRC agreed these met the intent of the TMI recommendations.

Small plant, big performance
Big Rock Point always had a remarkable record of safety and reliability for a plant with no more than 170 employees. For example, in 1986, the plant’s 95.5 percent availability was the best of any General Electric-designed plant in the world that year.

Donnelly recalls, "When I met with other people in the industry, I used to say, ‘Don’t forget I get the same mail you do. The regulations don’t say, "All plants must do this except Big Rock Point." Just because we’re only 70 megawatts doesn’t mean they cut us any slack.’ An accident at a 70-MW plant would have the same consequences as one at a bigger plant. So we really had to be smart and work on the right things."

He adds, "I was on the committee that wrote the Emergency Operating Procedure Guidelines for GE plants. The terminology had to be such that all GE-designed plants could accomplish the intent of the steps. They’d write a procedure, and I’d say, ‘But we don’t have a startup position on our mode switch. We just have run, refuel and shutdown.’ They’d make fun of our little plant. But this was after 1977, when Big Rock set a world record for 343 days of continuous operation. I’d say, ‘We just had a 343-day run. Can any of you say that?’"

Working safely
In 1977, an auxiliary operator ran down stairs to answer an alarm and twisted his ankle. That was the last lost-workday accident at Big Rock Point. Big Rock employees aren’t really sure what the secret is to 20 years without a lost-workday accident. Donnelly says, "The plant is like a big family. When someone made a mistake that could hurt someone, it really bothered everyone, and they really internalized the lessons learned."

Outage/Work Control Manager Bill Trubilowicz began work at Big Rock Point as an auxiliary operator in 1976. He says, "Long before they became the norm in the industry, we always had safety briefings and tried to talk through everything before performing a job."

Conservative decision-making has always been part of the Big Rock culture. Hausler attributes this to the care taken when the plant was a research reactor and performing tasks that had never been done before. Donnelly recalls being in the control room in the mid-1970s when it was discovered that some plant instruments were not qualified for the temperatures and pressures they could be subjected to during a severe accident. Even though the plant was running well, management chose to shut down until all the instruments could be tested – a very conservative decision for that time. "That’s just the way we always operated. If there was a problem, we shut down the plant and fixed it. We operated conservatively, and senior management backed us up."

Part of Big Rock Point’s success came from a continuing effort to learn from others. The plant has provided peer evaluators to more than 32 INPO evaluations, accreditation visits and assistance visits. Employees such as Donnelly have also served as on-loan employees to INPO. In addition, plant management has encouraged employees to visit other plants.

Trubilowicz comments, "Since we’re somewhat isolated, we needed to ensure we got different views on things. INPO and other programs gave us the chance to get out and see the world. And it’s kind of cool to see other plants. They’ve got valves as big as our turbine. We’ve always tried to get ideas and then work them into the Big Rock mode, knowing we had to do the same thing with fewer people."

Plant General Manager Ken Powers says that the rest of the industry can learn from the success of Big Rock Point. "We’re all facing deregulation issues. Big Rock has shown that a small staff can do a very professional, high-quality job running a nuclear power plant."
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