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In the Schools: Aging of Millstone plants leaves plenty of questions

For many residents of Waterford, the Millstone Nuclear Power Plant is nothing more than a restricted area in the southwest corner of town. But the land on which the plant sits has a rich history.

Millstone Point used to be a quarry for high quality granite. Some of the granite mined at Millstone Point can be found in the base of the Statue of Liberty and in Grand Central Station in New York City. The old site of the quarry is now the site where water is discharged from the nuclear reactors back into Long Island Sound.

Millstone itself is composed of three nuclear reactor units that together create more than two gigawatts of electricity, enough to power half of Connecticut. Just one nuclear reactor has the capacity to power holiday lights wrapping around the world more than 27 times.

At the most basic level, nuclear power plants generate electricity by using uranium rods to convert water into steam, which is then used to spin a turbine. In its training building, Millstone has a fully functioning model nuclear reactor that creates real steam to drive a miniature turbine at a speed of roughly 4,000 rotations per minute. Just a mile down the road, the real turbine used to generate electricity for the grid is just a little bigger, comparable in size to a house.

The two operational nuclear reactors, units 2 and 3, were originally licensed in 1975 and 1985 for 40 years by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, and both saw their requests for 20-year licensing extensions approved. Nuclear reactor units 2 and 3 will see their licenses expire in 2035 and 2045 respectively.

Recently, Dominion Energy and the State of Connecticut secured a deal in which Millstone will continue to provide energy to the state for the next decade. After the 10 years are up, it will be up to Dominion Energy to decide whether or not it is viable to keep Millstone running from a financial standpoint, based on the activity of the markets.

It is impossible to predict whether the licenses will be extended again, but engineers at the plant during a tour in December said ideally that maintenance and upgrades would allow for the extensions to be granted.

To extend the licenses, the plant must submit a plan on how it intends to deal with the aging parts of the reactor and its components. Millstone keeps the aging plant safe through preventive maintenance, meaning that everything is inspected and replaced after a specified amount of time, as opposed to just fixing something when it malfunctions.

Over the course of 18 months, every single part of the plant will have been inspected at least once to ensure it is operating the way it should.

Plant operations weren’t always so systematic, Twenty years ago, Millstone was hit with a record $10 million fine related to mismanagement and falsifying records between 1994 and 1996. An investigation at the time found that a large number of employees had failed licensing tests and had not accrued enough training hours, but were still on the job.

Employees at the plant today acknowledge the failures of the past and say that things are done a lot differently now. In addition, the plant is under new management after it was purchased by Dominion Energy in 2000.

Today, safety is considered the number-one priority at Millstone, even higher than the production of electricity. The plant has procedures and step-by-step plans written for nearly every event possible.

Engineers who work in the control rooms of units 2 or 3 have eight-day training sessions every five weeks to ensure that they are prepared for any situation that may arise. Training occurs in full-scale, exact replica simulators that Millstone has for both of its reactors, run by computers that simulate reactions from the reactor.

Rules regarding safety are numerous and strictly followed in the plant. Security is extremely tight inside and around the gates, and visitors need an escort with them at all times while on the premises. All employees working at the plant must wear a Thermoluminescent dosimeter that monitors radiation levels, as well as pass through a machine that checks even further for any traces of radiation upon exiting the premises. Communication between workers is set up to decrease ambiguity and eliminate miscommunication errors.

Even when walking on stairs, workers are required to take it one tread at a time and have their hand on the handrails at all times. The regulations may seem tedious or mundane, but as a whole they ensure the plant runs safely and smoothly.

Millstone currently pays roughly a third of Waterford’s $93 million annual budget. It is what allows Waterford to spend an average of $1,050 more per student per year when compared to East Lyme, Groton, New London and Montville, according to documents released by each school district.

As soon as the plant stops operating, it immediately loses its value, and a drop in value means a significant drop in taxes paid to the town of Waterford. Loss of tax revenue from Millstone would be devastating to the town budget, particularly the Waterford Public School system, whose budget is nearing $50 million.

In a school district where the costs of maintenance and supplies are already kept at a minimum, school administrators say a loss of funding would be made up for with faculty layoffs, especially considering the decrease in population Waterford has seen in recent years.

First Selectman Rob Brule said the town has been putting $1 million aside for the past few years to offset revenue that may be lost in the future.

But the loss of Millstone could prove devastating to the surrounding economy as well. Millstone puts more than $1.5 billion into the Connecticut economy each year, as well as employing roughly 800 full-time workers and supporting nearly 4,000 in-state jobs.

There are a whole host of contractors who work directly with Millstone, providing services such as welding and pipe fitting.

Millstone also makes voluntary donations to local towns. Each year Dominion allocates more than $500,000 to the plant for use in the community, mostly in the form of donations to nonprofits, including organizations such as Safe Futures and the New London Community Meal Center.

Employees of the company are also active volunteers in community events. Dominion gives employees eight hours a year of company time to go out and volunteer, with even more opportunities popping up through a whole collection of company-sponsored events. Additionally, the company has a program in which employees who put in a certain amount of volunteer hours can have the company donate money to a charity of their choice.

Many of the employees at Millstone conveyed their satisfaction in their job and with Dominion. Millstone provides a stable, well-paying job to those coming right out of college.

Most engineers at the plant majored in mechanical or chemical engineering, but those degrees are certainly not a prerequisite for Millstone. Jobs at Dominion Energy include finance, physical and information security, administration and environmental science. Engineers said that starting in the nuclear industry is daunting with such complicated and powerful infrastructure, and it takes at least five years to become familiar with everything needed in one’s job.

However, once that experience is acquired, a person is invaluable to the nuclear industry, and skills can be transferred for use at other nuclear power plants across the nation.

Millstone offers multiple programs to train the next generation of nuclear engineers. Each year Dominion hires more than 225 paid interns from all across the country.

Most relevant is the partnership that Millstone has with Three Rivers Community College in its Nuclear Engineering Technology program that sees students leave with an associate’s degree in Nuclear Engineering Technology. Each year, Millstone sponsors up to 16 full-ride scholarships that cover the full cost of the program, including tuition, books and even a monthly stipend. The program prepares students for the position of entry-level technician for the commercial nuclear power industry.

Millstone touches every part of the Waterford community, and if it were to close it would create a significant change in the way the town operates. It has become a part of the town’s identity.

With its outreach programs, Dominion Energy is working to advance the nuclear industry by engaging with its community. Millstone is a symbol of the technological boom of the postwar years. Now as its technology ages, the question of what the future holds remains.

Owen Seltzer and Anna Schleck, journalism students at Waterford High School, are part of the Times’ Young Journalists Initiative.

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