Sweet Briar College announced its closure on March 3, 2015

SWC mugYou might be wondering why I’ve chosen to write about an announcement that a small, but historic women’s liberal arts college is planning to close. What does that have to do with atomic energy?

The college, Sweet Briar College, is located a little less than an hour from my Forest, VA home. I’ve met a few of the faculty and students at American Nuclear Society and Engineering Week meetings during my four and a half years in the Lynchburg area. At the December 2014 meeting, I spoke with a graduating senior and a professor. They invited me to come and give a talk about nuclear energy to the school’s Engineering Club.

You might be surprised to hear that a liberal arts college has such a club, but engineering is a creative field whose graduates can change the world by using applied science to improve physical conditions for masses of people.

We scheduled the talk for noon on March 3, 3015 — yesterday.

As we were setting up for the talk, my host informed me that the college president had made an announcement at about 10:00 am that he was convening an “all college” meeting at noon. She apologized profusely, but told me that the talk was not mandatory. She knew it would affect the attendance numbers but thought that some people would make the decision to come, eat pizza and listen to me, figuring they would hear about whatever the president had to say in due time.

Before the talk, I had a brief chat with one of the professors who helped to establish the engineering science major at Sweet Briar. The effort began in 2005; the program received its accreditation in 2010. The initial expectations were rather modest, with plans to attract enough students to graduate perhaps five majors each year and to provide enriching courses for students in other curricula. Instead, the program has proven quite popular and produces about 20 graduates per year with room for a few more.

It is one of only two women’s colleges in the US that offer an accredited degree in engineering.

I spoke to a group of about 20-25 young women who were animated and full of questions. The topic of the talk was using nuclear energy as a tool to empower human society while reducing production of combustion waste material that is changing our global atmospheric chemistry. Near the end of the talk, my wife, who was filming the talk for me, noted a few members of the audience surreptitiously checking their phones and getting a stunned look on their faces. One woman put her head down and seemed to be sobbing.

After I finished talking and answering questions, we found out that the college president had announced that the school’s board of trustees had voted to close the 114-year-old school. This semester is the last one; nearly all of the staff will be out of a job and all of the underclass students will have to find another place where they can complete their degree programs.

The school’s explanation for the decision is that recruitment is getting too difficult. Sweet Briar has an enrollment of about 600 students but classes in recent years have been shrinking a bit even as the admissions office has offered more and more financial aid. The school is not in dire financial condition; it has a $94 million endowment. However, the Board decided that the trend lines were not in the right direction and they did not want to gradually sink.

Though Sweet Briar is in a rural area, it is immediately off an exit of US 29, a nearly interstate highway quality road with a 70 MPH speed limit between Sweet Briar and Lynchburg. It took me less than 25 minutes after leaving my talk to arrive in downtown Lynchburg for an after-talk meal.

Sweet Briar College has a gorgeous campus nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains. Apparently, it has an “insanely fast” wi-fi network that blankets its 3,000 acre campus.

Lynchburg is a regional growth story and a place where there are good jobs with several major employers interested in hiring talented young people, especially those who can bring a diverse point of view to fields that require both technical expertise and a good understanding of humanity.

Areva, B&W, Harris, and several smaller communications firms all have large operations in the Lynchburg area. In fact, the young lady who invited me to talk is a Sweet Briar senior who told me excitedly that she had just landed a job with Areva starting 2 weeks after graduation.

My point is to suggest that the school might have pulled the plug too early, especially if its recent recruitment goal misses are on the order of a few dozen students. I am not saying that their engineering program would be the savior of the school, but that there is a very important role for people who have an interest in both the humanities and applied science.

I wonder if the Board of Trustees approached the Lynchburg business community for assistance as they were trying to find a path that would enable the college to survive and prosper. Engagement with the business community could improve the existing internship programs and provide opportunities to establish work-study programs. The companies have important questions requiring focused research that could help support some of the faculty members with grants.

This might be just one more losing cause where my awareness and interest has come way too late to have any effect on the outcome. If Sweet Briar College has not talked to Lynchburg area employers, there might be an opportunity if action happens immediately.

I’ve been in plenty of meetings and discussions over the years that have focused on the challenge of attracting women into engineering and other applied science fields AND providing them with a supportive, nurturing, confidence-building environment once they start working.

One path that has not been fully explored is partnering with women’s liberal arts colleges to develop appropriate curricula and major programs. Those institutions have historically provided women with a useful set of tools that can enable them to thrive in competitive, formerly male-dominated professions. By their very nature, they are institutions where women take on leadership roles and where they are not distracted or disrespected by some of the activities that occur on coeducational campuses.

Nuclear technology is a field that desperately needs to improve its outreach to women, not only as potential employees, but as political decision makers and potential customers. Lynchburg has a large nuclear industry that is under duress, partly because it has not successfully explained its value to enough women.

Now I hope you understand why I chose to write about the imminent closure of a small, private, women’s liberal arts college. It is out of a vain hope that this article might reach a few people who can help to change the story.

PS – There are some great images of the school available using “Sweet Briar College images” as a Google search term. We didn’t have a still camera with us yesterday, but I think I’ll have to go back and get some photos to share with you. If you try to reach the college web site anytime soon, you will be met with error messages. The news resulted in so much traffic that the site crashed hard.

The college leadership produced a video explaining their decision process and giving some advance word on the transition that they will be undertaking. I was intrigued to hear that the current president of the college has only been on board for 8 months.

Additional reading

Washington Post – March 3, 2015 Sweet Briar College to close because of financial challenges

Diseconomy of scale – world’s largest canned-motor reactor coolant pump

On February 16, 2015, an AP article by Ray Henry titled Nuclear plants delayed in China, watched closely by US firms contained a short paragraph that has contributed to a number of sleepless nights. I’m pretty sure there are plenty of other people affected in the same manner who have far more at stake than I do. Here are the worry-simulating words.

Officials at China’s State Nuclear Power Technology Corp. blame the delays on the late delivery of equipment from the United States. Westinghouse Electric Co. and project manufacturers are working to redesign a coolant pump for the plant.
(Emphasis added.)

The pump being redesigned is a reactor coolant pump manufactured by the EMD division of the Curtiss-Wright company. There are four of these pumps in each Westinghouse AP1000® pressurized water reactor. There are four AP1000 reactors under construction in China and four in the United States. Each of those reactors is a major construction effort with a budget of somewhere between $5 and $10 billion and a project schedule that includes a minimum of four years on site with peak employment of roughly 2,500 – 3,000 workers per unit.

Aside: If you need information about what reactor coolant pumps do in a pressurized water reactor, please refer to a detailed article titled The world’s largest canned motor pump, published in Nuclear Engineering International on January 1, 2013. End aside.

Each of the pumps is vital to the operation of the plant it will serve; there are no installed spares and no easy way to replace a pump. A pair of pumps is bolted and welded to the casing at the bottom of each of two steam generators in the plant; there are no isolation valves. It is not possible to operate a plant without all four pumps operating properly. Therefore the plant owners expect that the pumps will operate reliably for the full 60-year lifetime of the reactor plant that they have purchased.

A couple of decades ago, when I first started learning about the advanced passive nuclear power plant designs that Westinghouse was developing, I was pleased to find out that the systems would include an “innovation” called a canned-motor reactor coolant pump. I’ve operated remarkably reliable machinery in the same family; the ones with which I was familiar had seen 25 years of hard service without any hints of mechanical failures.

They were so reliable, in fact, that the uninstalled spare pump had been removed and redeployed to newly built facilities. We retained the installed spares that provided the ability to accept electrical or mechanical failure while retaining overall system operability.

At the time I learned about commercial interest in canned-motor pumps, I had recently learned that only the first commercial PWR used them; all subsequent plants had pumps with rotary seals. I didn’t think much about the basis for that choice, but I remember wondering why my acquaintances who operated commercial plants expressed occasional concerns about reactor coolant pump seal failures. As I learned more, I found out that improving seals was an important area of research and development.

It seemed logical and reassuring that modern commercial plants would take advantage of a well-proven technology, but I neglected to consider the risks associated with a vast increase in the size of the pumps that would be required. The largest canned-motor pumps with extensive operational history have perhaps 1/10th of the nameplate capacity of the pumps proposed for the AP1000. The AP1000 RCPs are 6.9 m tall, about 2 m in diameter at the widest point and weigh more than 91,000 kg.

Apparently, the key decision makers were not very worried about the challenges associated with scaling up the pump either. Again referring to The world’s largest canned motor pump:

The AP1000 pump is designed with EMD’s strong design and analysis capabilities, which are based on more than 50 years of canned motor pump experience. Advancements in analytical software capabilities have been maintained and improved for all aspects of the design including thermal-hydraulics, structural, dynamics, and electrical design. Specific features targeted for design analysis utilize computerized fluid dynamics software for the hydraulic design, and internal circulation features to support the flywheel and thrust bearing designs. In addition, EMD has modeled defined regions of the motor electrical design and performed electromagnetic finite element analysis to optimize flux field performance.

Careful reading of that quote by skeptical, experienced operators might initiate some serious questions like the following. “Are you telling me that you’ve never actually built one of these machines? Your confidence is based on software modeling, right? What kind of guarantees are you willing to provide that your pumps will work well enough so that they do not put several multibillion dollar investments at risk of never producing revenue?”

I have not been able to obtain any responses from the pump manufacturer, despite several repeated emails and phone calls to a variety of different points of contact listed both on the EMD division web site and on the parent company web site. Messages left with the public relations point of contact have also not been returned.

Therefore I am left with reporting the design issues that I was able to find in published sources. Here they are in date order.

On May 19, 2010 — nearly five years ago — Nuclear Engineering International published an article titled Successful testing of AP1000 reactor coolant pumps that included the following quote.

Curtiss-Wright Flow Control – EMD and Westinghouse Electric Company LLC say they are continuing testing of the world’s largest canned-motor reactor coolant pump (RCP) for the AP1000.

During testing on 13 May, testing of the AP1000 pressurized water reactor RCP was successfully completed in ambient operating conditions. On Saturday, 15 May testing was successfully performed at normal operating temperatures and pressures. All test objectives for both tests were met. The tests were completed ahead of schedule, and witnessed by representatives of China’s State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation, owners of the four AP1000 units currently being constructed in China.

On April 17, 2012, Nuclear Engineering International published a brief story titled Sanmen RCPs to be shipped by June that said that the first two reactor coolant pumps for the Sanmen power plant — the first of a kind AP1000 — had completed 500 hours of testing and would be shipped by the end of the second quarter of 2012. The article ended with the following statement with no further details provided.

…SNPTC, Westinghouse and Curtiss-Wright had “jointly overcome the challenges with the AP1000 RCPs.”

On May 3 2013, Curtiss-Wright submitted a Part 21 report of defects and noncompliance titled Insufficient Process Control on Pump Impeller that described how a 3″ by 2.5″ piece of the pump impeller, which had been supplied by Wollaston Alloys, had separated from the leading edge of one of the pump blades during final testing.

On June 17, 2013, Wollaston Alloys submitted a document titled Report of Potential Substantial Safety Hazard in accordance with Title 10 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 21. That document described some quality control issues, the extent of the conditions discovered and actions taken to prevent them from recurring.

As a result of the defects, SNPTC shipped three of the four pumps it had already received back to the US for component replacement and factory retesting. The first two repaired pumps were shipped back to China in August 2013.

On September 19, 2014, Nuclear Engineering International published a story titled Design issues resolved for China AP1000s that led off with a statement about the resolution of first of a kind engineering issues sourced to Westinghouse CEO, Danny Roderick. It continued with a description of the installation plan for redesigned and remanufactured pumps to support a schedule starting date of December 1, 2015 for Sanmen 1.

The article explained the status of the pumps issues as follows.

Timothy Collier, Westinghouse vice president and managing director, China, said in an April 2014 press conference that the problem with the reactor coolant pumps, manufactured by Curtiss-Wright flow control in the USA, was a matter of assessing mechanical tolerances in the pumps. He said that it was not a major design issue, but more one of validation and verification: some pumps had passed factory tests, and others had not. He said that the effort to resolve the issue involves Westinghouse working with Curtiss-Wright, outside experts, Chinese owners and the Chinese regulator the NNSA.
(Emphasis added.)

Though I am not a credentialed design engineer, I’ve worked with a lot of them and been involved in a number of engineering troubleshooting endeavors. The problems that are often the most difficult to solve are the ones that don’t always occur. Intermittent failure modes are hard to track down to the source of the problem, which makes it hard to know when you’ve found and corrected the root cause. Without correcting the source, you are never quite sure that you won’t have a similar problem later.

Based on the statement from the February 16, 2015 article with which this piece starts, it seems that there are still unknown issues with the pumps that require the suppliers to continue “working to redesign a coolant pump.”

When you notice the time delays associated with the above chain of events, take into account the fact that each pump is so large that it requires transport by a heavy lift truck, realize that the lead units are located half way around the world from the source factory, know that every day of delay for each AP1000 reactor plant costs between one and two million dollars, and remember that there are already eight units under construction with hopes for “well over 30 AP1000 units to be in operation by 2030″, you can perhaps understand why I’ve been having so much trouble sleeping.

There is so much riding on the success of the AP1000; I certainly hope that the reactor coolant pump issues get resolved without too much additional delay. However, I have to admit that I am no longer very optimistic and don’t see much evidence of a plan B for this particular design. There are, of course, an infinite number of ways to avoid the specific lesson that should be taken away from this saga and many nuclear innovators are working on projects that do not include this weak link.

One of my favorite ways to avoid the project risk that comes with design or manufacturing challenges associated with key components is to eliminate as many of those components as possible. NuScale, for example, has no worries about finding a reliable design or a reliable supplier for reactor coolant pumps. Its natural circulation design does not include any pumps in the first place.

I’ll close with a 2009 clip of Ted Rockwell, who served as Admiral Rickover’s technical director for the USS Nautilus and the Shippingport reactor, testifying to a US Senate committee about the advantages of building reactors that do not need to use the “world’s largest” components.

Food for thought:


For Want of a Nail

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a nail.

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