Though other parts of the Tri-Counties have seen staggering job losses in recent weeks, Pacific Gas & Electric has more than tripled its work force at the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in Avila Beach.
Diablo Canyon has hired 2,000 temporary workers as part of a two-stage, $700 million project that will make PG&E the largest employer in San Luis Obispo County — for a little while.
The project, which began in late January, is part of a scheduled refueling and maintenance outage, during which PG&E shuts down one of the facility’s two reactors so workers can perform routine maintenance and replace the unit’s four steam generators.
Standard refueling outages typically last about a month, but since steam generators are being replaced, this outage requires slightly more than two months – and double the number of employees. The extra work and extra hires will have a multiplier effect, with more money being spent in the region and more supplies and equipment purchased for the upgrades.
“Usually we only hire 1,000 people for an outage, but since we’re switching the steam generators this time, we’re bringing in 2,000-plus,” PG&E spokeswoman Emily Christensen said. “This outage is double the duration of a normal one. It’s an intensive capital project, so we need to have a lot more individuals on board.”
There are about 19,000 tasks that need to be accomplished during the outage, she said, including the replacement of the steam generators and the installation of new fuel rods. Combined, the two units produce 2.3 net gigawatts of electricity — enough to meet the needs of more than 3 million homes in northern and central California.
Valve technician James Burkett said other tasks include “anything from valves to welding to water tanks and construction. We break it down into teams that focus on specific tasks. It’s almost a complete overhaul of the equipment.”
The current outage started on Jan. 25, when PG&E shut down the reactor known as Unit 1. The first half of the steam generator replacement project took place last spring, when Unit 2 successfully completed its outage.
“This is the first time we have done a steam generator replacement project,” Christensen said. “We do anticipate that these new generators will take the plant through the current license — until 2025.”
Unit 1 was last shut down in April 2007 after operating for 513 continuous days, beginning at the conclusion of the December 2005 outage. Burkett said Diablo Canyon is aiming for a 66-day outage this time around.
“Operating Unit 1 continuously between refueling outages is a testament to the people who maintain and operate it safely and efficiently every day,” plant Vice President James Becker said in a release. “The Diablo Canyon team is prepared to execute a world-class outage that will set the stage for another long, continuous run for our customers.”
“Since it’s a planned outage, we knew ahead of time when the reactor would be offline,” Christensen said. “We are able to plan for that, and PG&E purchased power from other sources.”
The units contain thousands of tubes that transfer heat from the nuclear reactor to a steam-powered electrical generator. They must be swapped out because the walls of the many tubes are deteriorating and must be plugged. Each of the four steam generator units is 70 feet long and weighs 350 tons.
“We will be replacing reactor head vessels this fall — which is another fairly extensive capital project — but it won’t be as intensive as the steam generator replacement, so we won’t have as many additional outage workers then,” Christensen said.
She added that most of the temporary workers have spent more than one outage season with Diablo Canyon. The hiring vaults the PG&E workforce past the county’s largest employer, the county government.
“I think most of us [temporary workers] keep coming back because we make good money, we get hands-on experience and we see things that nobody else will ever get to see,” Burkett said. “We get experience in the industrial field, and the company really takes care of us. They’re really looking out for our safety.”
Burkett said Diablo Canyon has onen of the leading safety records of any power plant in the nation, something he attributes to PG&E’s lengthy screening process and subsequent training.
“We are required to take a 700-question psych test and a drug test, and they do a full background check,” Burkett said. “And there’s extensive training after that. Extensive training.”
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