Student Field Trip Goes Behind Scenes at Nuke Plant

Jun 07, 2017

Some school days are more fun than others – even at the end of the year. That was the case on Monday for sixth-graders in the gifted and talented program at Stafford Intermediate School when they traded the classroom for a chance in the simulator at the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station.

For the fifth consecutive year, the nuke plant opened its doors to local schools for its Energy Education Day. There’s classroom discussions, large displays in the Education Center, but by far the most fun is had in the simulator, which is an exact duplicate of the control room that runs the 47-year-old plant.

“It’s cool to see what exactly controls how we get electricity,” sixth-grader Kyle said after seeing what the simulator could do.

He and his classmates watched as Rob Sales, senior reactor operator, placed the simulator into similar conditions that existed during Superstorm Sandy. Alarms sounded and lights flashed as the plant scrammed, suddenly shutting down with the rapid insertion of the control rods. As the generator kicked in, lights stopped flashing and the alarms were silenced.

SCRAM is an acronym for Safety Control Rod Axe Man. Legend has it the phrase was coined by Enrico Fermi for Norman Hilberry, whose assignment was to avert a possible runaway reaction using an axe to cut a rope, allowing the backup safety control rod to drop into a pile during the December 1942 development of the first atomic reactor for the Manhattan Project.

Acronyms aside, the students wanted to know if Sales ever experienced a plant scram before.

“It’s happened to me many times in here,” he said. “And twice in the real thing.”

The important thing to remember, he told the students, is that “we train for the unknown so we can be prepared for anything. The whole idea is that it would be just another day at work.”

Every five weeks, Sales spends a week training in the simulator, he told students. By year’s end, he’s spent 240 hours training.

“You can practice without the worry,” Max, another sixth-grade student, said of why the simulator was his favorite part of the day, “so if anything ever happens in real life you’re ready.”

His sentiment was echoed by classmate Domenick, who enjoyed going behind the scenes, too. “Most people think electricity just comes to us.”

In between student groups, Sales stopped to consider the overall response to his presentation.

“Seeing this,” he gestured around the simulator, “they are in awe of what we do. They are profoundly interested in what we do here.”

Energy Education Day provides students with a practical and interactive understanding of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), a focus in most schools these days.

“Oyster Creek is a microcosm of STEM. There is every type of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics here,” plant spokeswoman Sue D’Ambrosio said, adding the employees – there were 75 employee volunteers this year and one who retired but comes back every year to help out – are grateful for the opportunity to share their knowledge and their skills."

Oyster Creek is a single-unit boiling water reactor that produces enough electricity to supply 600,000 homes, the equivalent of all the homes in Monmouth and Ocean counties. It first came online in December 1969 and is licensed to operate until April 9, 2029. It will come offline permanently Dec. 31, 2019 in a deal Exelon Corp., the owner and operator, struck with the state to bypass the installation of cooling towers.

— Gina G. Scala

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