BLOG: Nuclear power pants

February 26, 2009 2:40:17 PM PST
Of the many interesting things I learned today on the media tour of the Shearon Harris Nuclear Plant, the most unusual thing was not about a reactor, cooling process or clean energy. Nope, it was about my pants.

The day started off with a movie in the visitor center about Progress Energy’s nuclear power program and the Shearon Harris reactor. They’ve just renovated the visitor center with lots of new exhibits that show how a nuclear power plant creates energy and what it’s like inside the site. After the movie, we piled into SUVs and headed to the plant. Security at the gate is very tight and very efficiently run. Interestingly, until 9/11, you could drive right up to the actual power plant and park right on the site without going through security. Now, heavily armed guards check all IDs and verify social security numbers before letting you anywhere near the road that leads to the actual plant.

The first stop on the tour was the control room. We spoke at length with the leader in charge of the crew manning the operation of the plant. Today, the plant was operating at 940 megawatts. They told us that’s enough energy to power 700 to 750 thousand homes. Then, we walked through the plant to check out the turbines. It was so loud in this area that all of us had to wear ear plugs. The noise is not surprising when you consider how much water they’re using to spin giant turbines to create all that energy.

After a look at the turbine area, we headed to where they keep the spent fuel. Here, we were given dosimeters. They’re little machines that measure how much radiation you’re exposed to. They led us up some stairs and into a cold huge room. Here, the spent nuclear fuel is stored in deep pools of water. They led us along the sides of the pools so we could see what the old rods look like. The Harris site was originally designed for four reactors. Instead, they only built one. Because of that, there is extra storage space for spent fuel that’s shipped in from other plants that are running out of room.

Right by the extremely heavy locked exit door of the spent fuel room are little machines that monitor whether or not you have any radioactivity on your hands or feet. First you use a wand like machine to check your hands and then you scan the bottoms of your feet. Both of these readings came up normal so I headed downstairs to the station set up to check your clothing for radiation. Basically, the plant wants to make sure that before you go out into the public, you don’t unknowingly have any contaminants on your clothing. Here’s where the fun begins.

After making it through an initial scanner just fine, I stepped into a full body scanner. This machine is the final check of radiation on your clothes. I stepped into the machine and put my arm into a slot on the side. It counts down from seven initially and then should ask you to turn around. For me, it cycled through a second time. Then I spun around and it checked my back as well. Two cycles again. Then the machine spoke, “Contaminated.” I look up and my knees are flashing red on the screen. I’m thinking, this can’t be good.

I exit the machine the way I came in and they wanded down my knees with another smaller machine. The employees there explained that static electricity caused by some fabrics causes radon particles to be attracted to your clothing. They said it wasn’t an actual contamination, just a small amount of radon. Because their machines are so sensitive to keep any actual radiation from getting out of the spent fuel area and into the environment, my radon-kneed pants were no good.

The only thing that helps radon dissipate is time. So we waited, tried again, failed the machine again, and waited some more. At this point, the entire tour is waiting on me. Good move, Ross. Way to go.

After holding up the tour for a few more minutes, the Harris people offered me some nice dark green scrubs. I changed and they took the pants to be zapped to remove the radon. Now in dress shirt, dress shoes and scrubs, I passed the test with flying colors. Freedom is a pair of green scrubs.

Progress Energy zapped the pants and got them back to me about 20 minutes later before I left the visitor’s center where we finished the tour. I should also mention that none of our dosimeters showed that we’d been exposed to any actual radiation. The employees told me that the radon I attracted wasn’t any different that the radon that we all come in contact with floating around every day in the atmosphere. It may have actually been on the pants when I came in. Their machines are super sensitive to make sure that nothing inside the plant makes it out the door.

Turns out, wearing anything other than 100 percent cotton to a nuclear plant is a bad idea. Even if it’s a natural fiber, pants can still create too much static electricity and attract radon. I figured because my pants weren’t lycra or something man-made, I’d be cool. I thought wrong. Today, fashion failed this investigative reporter.


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