Oconee Nuclear Station: Analog is Still Alive

Enough already about the Arab Spring, the digital revolution is now coming to America’s nuclear power plants.
In the coming weeks, technicians will finish installing digital controls for the safety systems and operating of a nuclear reactor in South Carolina.

In a country where a digital blender may be bought for about $25 at Walmart, the Oconee Nuclear Station reactor will be the first of 104 reactors in the United States not controlled with the analog technology that brought the world cassette tapes and slide rules.

It has taken nuclear power plants so long to go digital because regulators wanted assurances the new control systems were as reliable as the old ones and could not be compromised by hackers.

“The systems in the plants right now, they are doing an excellent job. The plants are very safe – they’ve been doing their jobs for years…”

The catch behind going digital is saving money. Usually, systems in a nuclear power plant are monitors that bare four sensors. If more than one of them have out-of-whack readings, engineers often have to “trip” the plant, or shut it down, until the problem is resolved. If a nuclear plant is idle for a day or more, it may end up costing the utility company upwards of $2 million.

According to Jere Jenkins, director of Radiation Labs at Purdue University:

“Those utilities need to keep those plants running. To have unplanned outages as a result of an analog system isn’t doing what we need it to do – that’s a financial risk…”

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