Dominion's Matthews retires, leaving a legacy of powerful improvements at Millstone

Retired Dominion executive William R. Matthews
Retired Dominion executive William R. Matthews

When Dominion executive William R. Matthews retired Thursday, he left behind reactors at Millstone Power Station that produce more electricity today than they did a decade ago.

As senior vice president of nuclear operations since 2003 for the Virginia-based company, Matthews was responsible for Dominion's entire nuclear fleet, including reactors in Virginia, Wisconsin and Waterford. From 2001, when Dominion bought the complex, until 2003, he lived down the road from Millstone and oversaw operations there and at reactors in Virginia.

Today, Millstone produces more electricity annually with two reactors in a competitive market than it did 10 years ago with three reactors owned by Northeast Utilities in a regulated market. That's because the reactors are operating more, even though their daily megawatt production has been reduced by the closing of the Unit 1 reactor.

The numbers tell the story: Before NU's Millstone was shut down for mismanagement in the late 1990s, three reactors at Millstone produced up to 15,958,349 megawatts of electricity annually. Today, with Unit 1 closed, Dominion's Unit 2 and 3 reactors manage to produce 117,809 more megawatts a year than the three reactors did a decade ago.

Matthews' highest praise comes from his boss, David Christian, the chief executive officer of Dominion Generation, who said Matthews exemplified attention to safety and reliability.

"My industry colleagues have commented, 'Now, that man knows how to run nuclear power stations,'" Christian said in a statement.

The reactors can run for longer periods because Dominion has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in improvements since it bought the 535-acre complex. In an interview at his home in New London, Matthews ticked off every major upgrade, ranging from a new reactor vessel head at Unit 2 to new turbines at both reactors, and justified the expense as "just good business."

"The five worst words in nuclear power," he added, "are, 'Maybe it will go away,' because problems never go away, so you deal with it and you fix them."

Achieving this level of competence requires rigorous oversight. As operators ran the reactors, Matthews said, his job involved "looking over their shoulders, second-guessing some of their decisions, probing, asking the 'why' question. We say, 'Ask why' at least three times and make sure they're making the right risk decisions."

A man of character

A.J. "Skip" Jordan, site vice president, who worked under both NU and Dominion for a combined 27 years, said that when the charging system at Unit 2 wouldn't work right even after making major adjustments, Matthews directed him to "just fix it," regardless of cost. The system filters and replaces water for the primary cooling system for the reactor.

"He's got uncommon character," Jordan said. "He is very candid, straightforward and can relate to multiple people in the field from the mechanic to the top executives in the company. You know exactly where he's coming from. And if you need a pat on the back or kick in the pants, he knows which one to employ."

A native of Dover, N.J., Matthews joined Dominion in 1972 after serving seven years in the U.S. Navy. Matthews' wife, Patricia, describes him as "intense," saying he keeps business concerns to himself. But local and company leaders characterize his communication with them as direct, open and part of the reason Dominion has been able to gain efficiencies and regain the surrounding community's trust.

"The relationship with the community up until the plants were sold was not good because of the problems Millstone had (under NU)," acknowledged Tony Sheridan, a former first selectman in the host town of Waterford and a one-time Dominion employee. "But when Bill Matthews came, it was clear from the beginning he believed what he said and acted on what he said.

"For example," Sheridan noted, "he believed the plants were safe when that was still a question in people's minds, and he showed he believed it by buying a house right across the street from the plant. The safe operation of Millstone was absolutely foremost in his mind and he lived that principle."

Knowing Millstone had just come out of recovery in the early 2000s, Matthews chose to set a tone for all employees, said Dan Weekley, managing director Northeast for Dominion. The attitude, Weekley said, was, "We will do right and (do it) safely the first time, period. No excuses or alternatives will be acceptable."

A direct manner

When the first of the World Trade Center towers was hit in 2001, Matthews called then-First Selectman Paul Eccard. Not knowing if they were dealing with an accident or a terrorist attack, Eccard said, they treated it with all the caution that ultimately proved necessary, though the nation's power plants were never attacked.

"It indicates the professional and direct manner in which Bill approaches problems that occur," Eccard said. "The trust was very deep between the two of us."

Other community leaders said Matthews' openness, accessibility to the public and reliability helped them believe Matthews stood behind his words.

"He has always been very forthcoming with information," said state Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford. "That's the way many of us felt: he didn't shy away from any tough questions. And he presented himself as a really balanced voice of the company."

Even with retirement looming, Matthews did not skirt complex issues.

"The units in the last couple of years haven't operated the way we'd like them to," he acknowledged in an interview with The Day. "We've had unexpected shutdowns, extended shutdowns. These are the things we want to fix. These things will not be fixed overnight."

He also volunteered a perspective on Millstone's place among its peers - 103 other reactors across the country, and hundreds more worldwide.

"We share information among all the units," Matthews said. "We are hostage to each other. (If) one unit does bad, it reflects on all the others, so we have to be on a constant improvement path, all the time. If you don't improve, you're falling behind."

While business and community leaders tell him they favor adding reactors today in Waterford, that is not likely at Millstone because the atmosphere in the Northeast is not supportive, he said.

Nonetheless, Matthews believes Dominion is here to stay. The reactors have been relicensed through the middle of the century and the company has other generating plants in New England that, together, make up one of the region's largest energy portfolios.

"We are a main player and we intend to stay that way," he said.

A father to three adult women, Matthews relaxes by playing golf, fly-fishing and spending time with his children and grandchildren.

Just before his retirement, Dominion presented Matthews with a portrait and a crystal bowl that represents a new award established in his honor. The Operational Excellence Award recognizes superlative work and will be given out "only when people deserve it," he said.

Matthews plans to spend summers here and winters in Richmond, Va. - and savor his newfound freedom from the daily grind.

"I want to relax and not do any work for a while," he said.

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