By Matt Nauman
EUREKA – Promptly at 7 – the foreman looked at the clock right before he started – the morning shift meeting starts for the crew of PG&E employees and contractors who work on the decommissioning of the Humboldt Bay nuclear power plant.
Every seat in this trailer meeting room is full. Some workers are finishing breakfast. Many have cups of coffee within reach. Most are in orange safety vests. Hard hats rest on knees, desks or heads.
After a robust “good morning,” the gathering begins with what almost sounds like a chant:
- “All injuries are preventable.”
- “Responsible leadership and employee accountability prevent injuries.”
- “Plan safety into your work.”
- “Look out for yourself and each other.”
Immediately, the foreman calls on one of the crew and asks him to pick one of the safety slogans and explain what it means to him. Behind him, the daily tote board shows “804 days without a recordable accident.”
Minutes later, the foreman asks about “the drip.” That’s a daily posting showing another safety slogan dripping from a bucket. Today’s message: “The door to safety swings on the hinges of common sense. “
You can’t spend more than 15 minutes on site at Humboldt Bay without realizing that this is a place that takes safety seriously.
And while safety messages, safety training and safety reminders are a hallmark at PG&E, Humboldt Bay takes it to another level. Need proof? The plant just won its third consecutive Sibley Award, an internal honor given to those who demonstrate safety to an extraordinary level.
Paul Roller, a long-time PG&E employee who is the plant manager, talks about the day that a company officer visited. He noticed that the team had gone 350 days without an accident, and asked what the next goal was. The officer assumed the answer might be 400 or 500 days. Instead, a mechanical maintenance foreman said “351.”
That attitude eventually led to another of the plant’s slogans — “Plus 1” — emphasizing the importance of ensuring every worker on site returns home safe one more day.
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Roller often describes the plant, which sits on Humboldt Bay just south of Eureka, as “the busiest 13 acres in California.” He might be right.
- The brand new Humboldt Bay Generating Station, a 163-megawatt power plant that uses 10 reciprocating engines that run on natural gas (with diesel fuel as a backup), went into operation in 2010. That’s enough power for about 120,000 homes. It had been under construction for several years. The plant is 33 percent more efficient than the former fossil plant, and releases 83 percent fewer ozone precursors and 33 percent fewer C02 emissions.
- Once the new Generating Station was in operation, the former fossil-fuel plant known as the Humboldt Bay Power Plant was shut down. It had provided 135 megawatts of power to customers on the far northern California coast since the mid-1950s. That plant is now a skeleton of steel beams as crews with cranes and gas-cutting torches remove it.
- Meanwhile, the Humboldt Bay nuclear plant is going through a 7-year decommissioning process. It opened in 1963 and last provided power in 1976 when it was shutdown for a routine refueling outage. In 1984, after several years of evaluating the plant’s restart, its relatively small output (65 megawatts) and the cost of needed upgrades weren’t deemed worthwhile and the plant entered a permanent shutdown condition called SAFSTOR. Starting in 2008, the plant’s spent fuel was moved to dry cask storage on site and now crews are taking apart the plant – carefully. This means that every wall and ceiling, every light switch and pipe will be gone. Eventually, only the on-site Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation (ISFSI) will remain. The ISFSI site, as it’s called by plant workers, sits on a hill, providing protection from a tsunami
Humboldt Bay is the only location in America where a traditional fossil fuel plant and a nuclear plant operated physically attached as a common power plant. Humboldt Bay also was the only underground nuclear plant in the United States. From the reactor-vessel room, a series of staircases go deeper and deeper below ground level. Then, three floors below, there is an exposed elevator, known as a “man lift” that can take plant personnel down several more stories.
These days, to add a little efficiency to the bustling work site, crews decommissioning the nuclear plant and demolishing the fossil plant work four-day weeks with opposite days off. On this Monday in late June, for instance, the 360-person nuclear crew is hard at work, but the 40-person fossil crew is off. That helps, too, as a number of employees live away from the plant and return to the area for their shifts, and then go home.
The goal, Roller says, is to return the site to an environmentally restored location where a single power plant operates with its relatively small number of workers by 2015.
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Nearly every Humboldt employee (and contractor) works with a “Tell Me” badge clipped to their shirt or safety vest. On front, besides the prominent words “Tell Me,” there is a reference to the plant winning the Sibley Award, PG&E’s highest safety honor. On back, there are these three sentences: “We are the extra eyes, ears and voices for our coworkers, and we use them to keep each other safe. You tell me. I’ll tell you.”
During a three-hour tour, Roller frequently pointed to steps and cords and other potential safety or tripping hazards, even making a stop to have a visitor tie his shoelace.
Safety takes many forms at Humboldt Bay. Besides the usual ones – preventing on-the-job and driving accidents, for example – the plant also deals with radiation related to the decommissioning of the nuclear plant. For Roller, that means keeping radiation doses as low as possible. Workers go through 2.5 days of radiation-protection training. All are screened each time they leave the nuclear facility to check for radioactive material. “We make a tremendous effort to keep radiation away from workers,” he said.
For most of those workers, this is their first experience in a nuclear environment. They are former sawmill or construction workers in many cases. The first lesson taught, Roller said, is that standards are high at the plant. “We have no tolerance for not following the rules,” he said.
Environmental safety is another consideration, as the plant sits adjacent to Humboldt Bay. A full-time environmental remediation manager helps supervise the plant cleanup.
Roller is a relative newcomer to Humboldt Bay, having worked for 20 years at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant in San Luis Obispo County in several roles including director of operations. He arrived in Humboldt in 2007.
One of his first actions was to work with local artist Jerry Lee Wallace on a mural that tells the history – and the future – of the plant. It starts out with black-and-white images of Enrico Fermi, Reddy Kilowatt and the original fossil power plant. Then, in vibrant yellows and reds, images of the new plants, the plant’s safety symbol, a tugboat carrying an engine and other images, appear. A pipeline serves as the timeline as it snakes its way through the entirety of this mural, and a symbolic passing of the torch conveys the notion that things are changing at Humboldt Bay.
Nearby Eureka is known for its colorful murals, and this one connects the plant to the town. Roller knows there’s a strong connection between plant and town. “If this plant goes offline, we turn people’s lights off,” he said. The plant’s Community Advisory Board is full of local residents, including an anti-nuke activist. “We do engage the community heavily here,” said Roller.