MOUNT VERNON — During his 17 years as a welder and pipefitter with the plumbers and pipefitters union out of Terre Haute, Ind., Jeff Ulery of Mount Vernon worked at a number of nuclear facilities. The experience left him with no fears for the safety of nuclear power, but he doesn’t expect any more of the big nuclear plants to be built in the U.S.
A couple of errors occurred in this story about the years Jeff Ulery of Mount Vernon worked as a pipefitter and welder at several nuclear power plants.
He returned to Mount Vernon in 1995 (not 1987) after he was injured and his father wanted to retire from the family business, Strang Glass. His father was not ill.
Also in the story, construction of the Marble Hill nuclear project in Indiana was shut down in 1984, not 1987.
Instead of the massive expense of a 300-megawatt reactor like the Braidwood facility near Joliet, Ill., which he helped build, or the Marble Hill plant in southern Indiana, which was never completed, he thinks it more likely companies will invest in smaller reactors, about 40 to 50 megawatts. Those he said, would be comparable to the reactors in nuclear aircraft carriers and would all be the same design.
“When I was working in the nuclear industry, which was during the Cold War, we heard there were plans to install underground a small nuclear reactor at every Strategic Air Command Base” to make sure of a power supply for the base.
One mistake the U.S. nuclear industry made, Ulery feels, is that no standard design for plants was adopted.
“Everybody has done their own thing and there are too many different types of reactors,” he said. On the other hand, “France builds one type of reactor; they’re all the same.”
What he saw while working at various facilities, gave him confidence in the safety of the plants.
“During construction,” he said, “every step is double-checked, every weld is X-rayed.”
As an example, he showed a pipe connection from a valve which he had welded.
“That would normally take about two hours,” he said. “It took two days. We spent more time filling out paperwork than doing welds.”
There were added layers of quality control in everything and if a part failed, he recalled, every part of the same type that had gone through the same quality control process, would be inspected or replaced.
Ulery worked both at plants under construction and in operation. At those plants in operation, they had to wear radiation detection badges and were informed monthly about how much radiation they had been exposed to. No problems occurred while he was working, but if something had, he said, they were expected to stay on the job.
The plants he worked on had massive backup systems, he said, and were of a more modern design than the reactors in Japan that were hit by the earthquakes and tsunami.
However, as Ulery pointed out, the safety systems meant to shut down a reactor in the event of a mishap, require power to operate and if that power is cut off, as happened in Japan, there is still a risk of a core melting. But, the systems are so redundant and there are so many backups, the chances are minimal.
At Braidwood, a massive diesel generator, built by Cooper-Bessemer (now Rolls-Royce), could be up and running in three seconds, Ulery said.
Ulery worked at Braidwood when it was under construction, and also worked at plants from New York to Wisconsin, but the place he planned to settle down and work permanently never got into operation. That was the Marble Hill facility in southern Indiana.
Ulery had begun training to work there because he was tired of traveling, but the builders were buried in debt and construction flaws and faulty concrete promised huge repair bills, Ulery said, so they shut the project down in 1987. The utility company was $2.8 billion in debt by that time but they were allowed to recover that money from their rate payers, he said with disgust.
Ulery said he enjoyed his years as a pipefitter and he worked many places besides nuclear plants, including Purdue and Indiana State universities, General Electric, Alcoa, Caterpillar and various chemical and petrochemical plants.
“I made a lot of good friends and it was a good learning experience,” he said.
He came back to Mount Vernon in 1987 to run the family business, Strang Glass Shop, when his father became ill. He’s been here ever since, the fourth generation to manage the business.
“I miss the technology, but I enjoy the customers here, too. I still carry my union card and I still weld — but only the occasional lawn mower or bush hog.”