Ep 75: Gene Grecheck - Fmr. Senior Vice President, Dominion Energy
Q1 - Entrance into Nuclear Engineering
Bret Kugelmass: How did you decide to pursue nuclear engineering?
Gene Grecheck: Gene Grecheck’s father, an immigrant from Eastern Europe after World War II, was an electrical engineer. As a child, Grecheck was always taking things apart and trying to figure out things worked. Grecheck attended Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute, starting out in physics. He decided he didn’t want to be a physicist, but was interested in energy and was bothered by the fact that most electricity in the U.S. was generated by burning stuff. At this time, in the early 70’s, the first commercial nuclear plants were going online in the U.S. Grecheck completed his Bachelor’s of Science in physics and stayed to complete his Master’s in nuclear engineering. After Grecheck started working at Virginia Electric and Power Company, which later became Dominion Power, Grecheck began taking night classes for his MBA at Virginia Commonwealth University. Grecheck saw nuclear technology as a piece of the big picture to make nuclear successful, which fed into the early 80’s focus on not building new plants, but making existing plants work after Three Mile Island. While at Virginia EP&C, Grecheck started out in the licensing department which was responsible for getting license applications approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The company had two operating units just started up at Surry and North Anna 1 and 2 were finishing up in construction working towards an operating license. At this time, there were four more units with construction permits issued, two each at Surry and North Anna. Grecheck’s first focus was assisting the lead engineer on North Anna 1 and 2. He read the Final Analysis Safety Report for this application from beginning to end.
Q2 - Nuclear Reactor Operators
Bret Kugelmass: Did starting out in licensing give you familiarity with every system in the power plant and enable your rise to site vice-presidency at Surry?
Gene Grecheck: Licensing seems like a detour off the engineering path, but that is one of the few places where you are expected to know a little bit about everything in the plant. There is very little specialization at that point, and you must be able to understand how everything fits together and where the experts are. Gene Grecheck found licensing an extremely good background. After receiving the license for North Anna, Grecheck was sent to Surry to get a senior reactor operator (SRO) license. In order to operate the controls of a nuclear power plant, the individual has to have an individual license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which is achieved by passing a comprehensive exam that is administered by the NRC. Dominion made it clear that, if you wanted to rise in management of a power plant, you must get your SRO to make sure you understood how everything fit together and were not just focused on one thing. Some things an SRO must remember include the mark numbers of several hundred different components and their sequences and plant emergency procedures. Individuals were also evaluated on performance in the simulator, a computer-driven replica of the control room which can cause anything to fail. In the early 80’s, when Grecheck achieved his SRO, there was a lot of reactiveness to problems and not much time for management to get involved. The early reactors were designed without computers and calculators. Many of the assumptions and insights were not documented or turned over to the operator, even though they were input into the design. One by one, plants in the 1980’s and early 1990’s were discovering that the plants were not quite designed right, mostly because something had changed after the original design. At Surry, some instrumentation was added in response to Three Mile Island, but discovered the heat load within the switchgear room now exceeded what the ventilation system was designed to handle. The original heat load had not been documented anywhere.
Q3 - Human Factors in a Nuclear Power Plant
Bret Kugelmass: How do little things cause big problems down the line in nuclear reactors that are difficult to anticipate?
Gene Grecheck: Westinghouse and GE had the structure in place to learn some of those lessons the first time around. When Westinghouse was designing the AP-1000 and GE was designing the ESPWR, there was a lot of discussion of documenting the assumptions and margin management. If the designer knows there is margin in the calculation, it needed to be explicitly identified so someone changing it later on would not have to guess or recreate it. In the early 2000’s, Gene Grecheck was encouraged when the new designs were coming out because there was recognition that plants couldn’t be built that we don’t know how they work or have lost margin. The Generation 3+ design process incorporated lessons learned and some really good plants could have been built, but we got caught in the fact that those plants were not economic anymore. In the early 80’s, typical industry capacity factors were in the 60% range. This means that 40% of the time, the plant was not running due to trips and refueling outages scheduled for 90 days. Outages were major management challenges because there were always unexpected things found. Routinely, outages ran a minimum of 60 hour weeks for 70-90 days and the industry discovered that when people worked that much, judgment was impaired, people were not getting enough sleep, and were having trouble at home with their families. The nuclear industry created an incredible opportunity to boost the knowledge in many disciplines that had nothing to do with nuclear, such as how to improve human performance and identify error-likely situations. Human factors in the early days was focused on the operator interface in the control room and how to organize the displays to lead the operator’s eye to the right place. In an emergency situation when you’re not thinking clearly and facing a situation you haven’t seen before, you can help the human by focusing the limited attention span of people on the right stuff. Human factors did not only apply to operators, but also maintenance, engineering, and management. Some sites with multiple units are mirror images and some are copies. On the equipment side, an incredible amount of work went into single point failures.
Q4 - Nuclear Reactor Management
Bret Kugelmass: Tell me about single point failures.
Gene Grecheck: In the early days, the regulatory structure was focused on redundancy for safety function, meaning designing against the worst possible accident. The worst possible accident was a double-ended break of a main reactor coolant pipe (LOCA), which would cause you to lose all the fluid in the reactor coolant system very quickly and the plant had to respond. Redundant equipment was provided so you could survive the worst single failure. Typically, the worst single failure was a loss of electrical power, so there were two totally independent trains of electrical power and redundant pumps would be on independent sources of electricity. There was not recognition early on in design that a lot of these events could be prevented if you didn’t cause transience in the first place. Reactor trips were accepted, but that perspective began to change. By the 2000’s, there were multiple reactor operators that would train in the simulator for what to do in a reactor trip and work up to nine years without seeing the reactor trip. One of the things the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) was created to do was realize - pre-Three Mile Island - that there was not a lot of recognition about the specialness of nuclear jobs. Most of the utilities that had built nuclear plants had built and operated coal plants, and nuclear was a snazzy new way of producing electricity but not fundamentally different. In the early days, management structures at nuclear plants were modeled after coal plants, meaning engineering was not plugged into the operations and the plant manager reported back to corporate at a low level. After Three Mile Island, people started realizing the different skill sets required. There were no lessons learned across nuclear plants in the early days. INPO created opportunities for people to get together, such as a senior plant management course. Dominion had corporate functions that made sure stations were operating properly. After realizing they had lost design control, they made a strategic decision that engineering was so important that it needed to be able to establish design authority, a technical ownership of the design of the plant. In order to maintain that division, the top engineering person at the station reported off-site to a corporate engineering structure. As Dominion began to expand and buy plants out-of-state, it became more and more important to have the corporate structure. After Dominion bought the Millstone plant, Gene Grecheck worked on loan to Northeast Utilities during the transition, acting as the VP of Operations for the plant.
Q5 - Changing Nuclear Plant Ownership
Bret Kugelmass: Is it tough for the staff of a plant to switch ownership, change the way they’ve been doing things, and see new leadership come into play?
Gene Grecheck: In the early 2000’s, many of the plants that were being auctioned or sold were already not economic. For many of the people in the plants, the plant either gets sold to a fleet operator or it shuts down. They were faced with a situation in which people had worked at the plant for 25-30 years and were used to a particular company culture. For the most part, people welcomed the buyer, since they were keeping them employed and making an investment in the employees and the plant. There were a lot of career opportunities opened up when a large fleet operator took over. The culture at Millstone was very different than what Gene Grecheck was used to. It took many years and many different Dominion leaders to integrate the plant into the Dominion system. Millstone had a history of lots of excess resources being spent on the process. By this time, Grecheck had spent 5-7 year as a site VP at Millstone and was ready for something different, just at the time of the nuclear renaissance and the company was starting to think about doing something with new nuclear. The Department of Energy (DOE) had a new program called NP2010 and had a number of opportunities to do some cost sharing if you could come up with proposals for site evaluation or technology evaluation. Under Grecheck’s leadership, Dominion was the only company to participate in every phase of NP2010. From a personal standpoint, this changed Grecheck’s life as his focus shifted from internal operations to external policy, federal and state agencies, and the public.
Q6 - U.S. Electricity Demand and Power Sources
Bret Kugelmass: What were some of the economic challenges that prevented the next level of growth anticipated during the nuclear renaissance?
Gene Grecheck: When the nuclear renaissance started with the adoption of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the Department of Energy (DOE) had NP2010 and the Nuclear Regulatory Commision (NRC) had geared up to be able to issue licenses under the new Part 52 combined license process. Under the legislation, there were loan guarantees available and other incentives, resulting in a major storm of people falling over each other to submit applications for Westinghouse, GE, Mitsubishi, and other technologies. Gene Grecheck showed people in public presentation that the growth of electricity demand was going to double. If it was not going to be clean generation, it was going to be coal, and people were supportive of nuclear. The markets were a combination of traditional regulated utilities and some merchant plants. In 2007, natural gas prices started to drop and the recession hit the U.S, causing electricity demand to go away. Some places in the U.S. had negative electricity demand growth. As time went on, the markets were getting even further distorted by out-of-market incentives provided for renewables that were subsidizing them to the expense of something else. Some utilities had “must take” requirements, where they had to take all the renewables offered to them regardless of the cost. The application for North Anna 3 was completed in 2007 and Dominion recognized that the plant would not be built in a merchant situation, but instead a more conventional cost-of-service situation. By the time Grecheck retired from Dominion in 2013, Dominion received a combined license (COL) for North Anna 3, but it was put on a shelf. The fundamental issue is that, from a purely economic standpoint and with gas prices what they are, there is nothing you can do in the big nuclear space to make current technologies economical. Nuclear power is clean energy and does not produce the typical pollutants that come from burning things, such as particulates and nitrous oxides. There are approximately two billion people that have no regular access to electricity, limiting access to things like modern medicine and water. Solar and wind are not effective in these environments, so coal is the go-to power source.
Q7 - Gaps in Nuclear Policy
Bret Kugelmass: Why isn’t bringing the world out of energy poverty with clean energy the next “space race” challenge?
Gene Grecheck: The reason NASA was created and astronauts were sent to the moon because the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were locked into a cold war or a struggle and everyone believed space was the next frontier. If you didn’t show superiority in space, you were demonstrating that you were technologically behind and it was very geopolitical. In the years since, NASA has been able to demonstrate that the spin-offs and the benefits to the U.S. economy and the world are tremendous from the technologies that were developed for the space program. If there could be a consensus around the idea that energy was important and if we could get consensus around the idea that if we’re going to produce energy, it should be done in the least environmentally impactful way, it stands to reason that nuclear could stand. But there is no consensus around the need to restrict carbon and no consensus on the need for adequate energy. Rather than coming up with the new technologies necessary, we are allowing perfectly good, seasoned, operating plants - that have been generating clean electricity for 40 or 50 years - to be shut down. Every time one of these plants are shut down, it’s not being replaced with solar or wind, it’s replaced with gas. In Gene Grecheck’s role as president at the American Nuclear Society (ANS), they created a committee that was going to work with the states to help understand policy implications because they thought Obama had just issued a clean power plan. They found that, at the state level, many of the policy makers had very little understanding of the economic impact of the nuclear plants, the number of jobs connected to the plant, and how much clean energy would be generated. Political rivalries exist between alternate energy technologies and if you are in the business of producing fossil fuels, you are not going to be supporting economic policies that promote nuclear.
Q8 - Telling the Nuclear Story
Bret Kugelmass: What topics do you help others with through your consulting practice?
Gene Grecheck: Gene Grecheck is a true believer that nuclear technology is not only desirable, but necessary. Grecheck helps people navigate their way through the thicket of how to go from a really cool idea to something that could be built. Most entrepreneurs in the nuclear sector don’t really understand the licensing process and what it means to go to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and get an application approved. Grecheck also helps others understand the economic factors of nuclear technology. There have been a lot of lessons learned over the years about how to manage these enterprises and how to coordinate design with operations. There are other facilities that deal with technology that have many of the same issues, such as how to make a quality assurance program effective. Just about everything we do today depends on energy and electricity. The future will have more dependence on power to support a transportation industry that is moving towards electric. It doesn’t make sense to depend on finite quantities of fossil fuels. Nuclear power is a way to do it in scale without covering the landscape in machinery that will not last that long. For way too long, the story has been told by people who will conflate the peaceful use of nuclear energy with weapons. Nuclear is the break in the world and the industry needs to be innovative. Nuclear needs to get actively engaged in setting the narrative. The American Nuclear Society (ANS) is an important part of a nuclear professional’s life. It is more than networking, but also developing the ability to communicate. Organizations like Generation Atomic are looking at ways to engage grassroots people to tell the nuclear story outside the traditional media. These organizations have the potential to move us from just talking about technical stuff to why nuclear is important and why the future of humanity depends on it.