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Generating electricity has come long way; what's next?

By Todd Welvaert, Dispatch/Argus Staff writer

Todd Welvaert / staff
Tom Oseland, a shift manager of one of five crews which operate Commonwealth Edison's nuclear power reactors in Cordova, said about the only thing a turn-of-the-century fossil fuel plant has in common with a nuclear plant is the end product -- electricity.

CORDOVA -- Comparing a turn-of-the-century fossil fuel power station to the nuclear generating stations of today is a little like comparing the Model T to the space shuttle. Both get you from point A to point B, but the comparison stops there.

Tom Oseland, a shift manager of one of five crews which operate Commonwealth Edison's nuclear power reactors in Cordova, said essentially the different plants do the same thing -- make energy.

``Basically, we look at energy sources the same way,'' Mr. Oseland said. ``Coal, nuclear, we take one type of energy to make another. We make heat to spin turbines to make electricity. The big differences is going to be in the volume, the numbers.''

And it is a big difference. Mr. Oseland said a coal plant 60 years ago would probably put out five megawatts of electricity a day. In comparison, the Cordova plant has five diesel generators in place solely in case of an emergency, to supply power for the plant's safety systems that produce triple that amount.

``The end product is about where the comparison stops,'' he said. ``With both reactors up and running, this plant puts out 1,666 megawatts of electricity a day. That's enough to supply a city of 945,000 people with all the energy they need for a 24-hour period. And it does it without putting any byproducts in the air.''

The technology has also evolved, perhaps even ahead of production. Mr. Oseland said he has seen huge improvements in the 20 years he has worked in the industry.

``Just like your personal computers went from 286 to 386 and then to the Pentium chip, the technology has changed in this industry,'' he said. ``This plant is a good example of that. Look in the control rooms. We used to have switches that would run the diesel generators. Now everything is a touch screen.''

Mr. Oseland said the computers also have made the operators at the plant better at their jobs. Commonwealth's Cordova plant has an on-site simulator that is an exact replica of the reactor control rooms, even down to the upholstery on the office furniture.

``The whole thing is an exact replica that is hooked into a big computer,'' he said. ``We train one week of every five. For one week we are in the simulator encountering problems that we have seen at this plant or other plants around the world. The computer gives us exact feedback as to what the plant would do, what the instruments would show. It's a tremendous advantage to our training.''

Mr. Oseland said Commonwealth Edison has 100 plants that provide 16 percent of the nation's electric needs, but energy needs continue to grow by about 2 to 4 percent a year.

``Think about everything in your house that uses electricity,'' he said. ``Compare that with what was in a home 60 years ago. There's your demand, your usage. We have to decide what direction we are going to go in next.

``We haven't had a new reactor ordered in America since 1979,'' he said. ``Are we going to head back to fossil fuels? Are we going to wind or solar powered? We probably wouldn't be able to do it on the scale that we do it today. We have to make a decision to what direction we are going to head in for the next 100 years.''

Copyright 1999, Moline Dispatch Publishing Co.