Fire at the Nuclear Plant

Just a quick link today to an article from the New York Times about fire danger, prevention, and detection at American nuclear power plants: Nuclear Regulators Urge High-Tech Fire Detection for Plants.

One of the current low-tech fire detection and prevention “mechanisms” currently in place is a small cadre of plant employees who walk around sniffing for the scent of smoke and then manually turn off pumps if the plant’s control systems are disabled by fire. The NRC — and the plant’s operators — would like to replace them with dedicated, computerized detectors as part of a “risk-informed” fire prevention policy. Fire danger at nuclear power plants is a real risk, and the article briefly recounts the 1975 fire at a TVA nuclear power plant in Alabama. That fire started when a worker, using a candle to test a conduit for an air leak, inadvertently set some insulation on fire, almost causing a meltdown.

I read about this accident in a library book way back in sixth grade. At the time I was fascinated with anything nuclear: nuclear power, nuclear weapons, nuclear physics, etc. The book recounted various accidents and near-misses at US and European plants, including the aforementioned Browns Ferry fire. (This was just a few months before the Chernobyl disaster, making the others looks minuscule.)

What I remember most about the book weren’t the disasters themselves; instead it was all of the countermeasures and design changes that each near-disaster brought about: using a feather instead of a flame, employing lower flammability materials, installing automated systems to halt the chain reaction, etc. These are lessons that I apply today as a software engineer: find the source of a problem, implement countermeasures, focus on risks.

I guess it should have been clear to me at that young age that I was going to be an engineer one day. In sixth grade I thought I was going to be a physicist, a desire which eventually gave way in college to the study of mathematics when I discovered I didn’t like lab nearly as much as I had expected. That introduced me to technical computing software and (eventually) the job I have now . . . which I should probably get back to doing.

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