Monday, January 15, 2007

CTO for Nuclear Power

What does the CTO of nuclear power giant Westinghouse do for a living?
#1. Design nuclear power plants.
#2. Try to sell them to countries around the world.

Until recently #2 was a lot harder than #1. Countries were just not buying nuclear power -- too dangerous, too much regulation. But now that oil is expensive, suddenly nuclear power looks cleaner and cheaper.

Here is a quick description of the challenges that faced Howard Bruschi, the former CTO of Westinghouse, when he was peddling nulcear power plants around the world.

"One great challenge in designing nuclear power plants is that making something safer and making something cheaper are often conflicting priorities: the less you spend, the less safe it is, and vice versa. This was what Westinghouse engineers began to wrestle with as they explored designs that could be built more efficiently. For any new project, the same basic technology would still be used to produce electricity: uranium pellets, encased in fuel rods, would undergo a controlled chain reaction in the core, release energy to heat pressurized water and generate steam, and the steam would turn giant, magnetized turbines to generate electricity. But they theorized that if the plant was physically smaller and it used less in the way of materials, it would help reduce costs and construction time. Also, a cheaper plant could be built off site from poured concrete modules and assembled on location, rather than through a huge works project on the scale of the Great Pyramids, as at Vogtle. Most important, perhaps, the engineers began to ponder what's known as ''passive'' safety features. Years before, the U.S. military had asked Westinghouse to design a small, underground nuclear reactor to power missile silos. The reactor was never built, according to Howard Bruschi, the company's former chief technology officer, but the lessons were not forgotten. Passive safety measures included backup systems that would kick in automatically in the event of accidents or mechanical problems. Hundreds or thousands of working pipes and valves might be replaced by, say, a tank of cooling water mounted high so it could be emptied by gravity rather than by an electric pump. Complexity reduced, money saved. And at least in theory, there was an improvement in safety, too. The company's project was given a name: the AP600. It stood for Advanced Passive reactor; the 600 represented the output in megawatts.
Westinghouse financed part of the AP600 effort through its research budget, and the company also received a generous grant in the early 1990's from the U.S. Department of Energy. But even those sources of money weren't enough to supply the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to create the large working models to test the efficacy of the safety systems. ''So we basically went to other countries that had nuclear programs and invited them to help with their test facilities and engineers,'' Bruschi says. Within Westinghouse, I heard it said that Bruschi went around the world, hat in hand, looking for help. I asked him how many countries he visited. ''Italy, France, Japan, England, Scotland, Spain, Belgium, Sweden, Switzerland, Latvia and Poland,'' he told me. Eventually he went to China and Indonesia, too. It paid off when the N.R.C. approved the design for the AP600 in 1999.

But there were no buyers. Not one. Ed Cummins, the Westinghouse engineer, says that one major utility executive set him straight on why. Any utility could build a gas plant for far cheaper, he was told, and sell the electricity at a lower rate. So why build this? The AP600 was too small. It generated too little electricity to justify its construction costs. ''He was right,'' Cummins says, and in response, he and his staff spent several years expanding the AP600 into the 1,100-megawatt AP1000. It cost more, but its larger electric output made it more competitive. When I visited Westinghouse in late May, the company was just putting the finishing touches on a simulated control room for the new plant, a sleek space near Cummins's office to demonstrate for buyers and regulators how operators will monitor the plant on just a few computer terminals and one large, central screen. Unlike the control rooms I visited at Vogtle and Grand Gulf, where operators are in charge of literally thousands of buttons, switches and meters, the technology at the AP1000 simulator, like the aesthetic, is modernized, simplified and streamlined."

Drawn from a longer article written for the New York Times Magazine: Original Draft Here


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