I had an opportunity to chat with David Hollein, a man who has been campaigning to reopen the Zion Nuclear Power Plant for more than a dozen years. His efforts were the initial inspiration for Nancy Thorner, a lady who is working hard to convince Exelon to operate a nuclear plant in her hometown. David has been bending as many ears as he can find at Rotary Clubs, local community events, and inside local news rooms, trying to find anyone who will listen and take action to correct what he sees as a huge, wasteful injustice.
He has worked so hard for so long that he has become bitter and disappointed. His health is also failing – he is no longer able to walk due to a long and inevitably unsuccessful battle with MS. From personal experience, I know that feeling like you have failed can be debilitating and can lead to rants and writings that can be dismissed as coming from a kook, even when those works and words contain a lot of valuable information inside an emotional package.
David was a Pittsburg area native who earned his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and landed a job with Westinghouse in 1968. At that time, the US was building a dozen or more ships or submarines powered with nuclear reactors each year and there were several dozen commercial nuclear plants under construction. The industry was growing rapidly and Westinghouse was a proud, dominant American manufacturing company that was leading the entire world with a newly developed and powerful technology. The company and its subsidiaries employed about 28,000 people in David’s hometown – the Pittsburg area.
During his career with Westinghouse, David led a number of projects and became acquainted with some powerful people. At one point, he was in charge of Westinghouse’s Commonwealth Edison projects and had the lead for at least three two-unit power stations – including the one at Zion. He was intimately familiar with the quality of the plants’ construction and their first couple of decades of operation.
David also experienced the decline of Westinghouse’s nuclear business. He was with the company for 22 years, from 1968 – 1990. When David left his engineering job with Westinghouse to pursue a career in real estate, it had been almost 20 years since the last order had been placed for a new unit in the United States – though its overseas sales were still quite healthy.
Westinghouse had lost track of its industrial roots and started a program of diversification into media enterprises, defense, soda bottling operations and financial services. The company’s leadership had struggled for a decade in court with a lawsuits from its uranium customers and a countersuit against uranium suppliers. It was also being sued by customers who claimed that the company had not properly designed and built its steam generators.
The steam generator story is part of the Zion story because one factor in its initial shutdown was the fact that both units had four steam generators that had begun experiencing tube leaks and were deteriorating to the point of needing to be replaced. They had been in operation for about 25 years, but there were only 15 years remaining on the initial operating license. Replacing steam generators is not easy or cheap, so the company had to weigh the projected cost of a little less than half a billion dollars against the revenue that the plant could earn in its remaining operating life.
That decision was complicated from a financial perspective because the electrical power market in the mid to late 1990s was soft and well-supplied with power coming from burning really cheap natural gas. At that time, the going price for 1000 cubic feet of gas was less than $2.00. Nuclear plants receive no credit, no value and no love for the fact that they produce power without producing any pollution – natural gas had already been well marketed and branded as “the cleanest burning fossil fuel.”
When David moved into the Chicago area in the late 1990s, he learned that Commonwealth Edison had decided to permanently close the Zion units. Though he had not worked in the nuclear industry for a few years, he was pretty sure that the plants that he and his team built still had a lot of life left in them, so he began his vocal questioning of the decision process. No where else in the country is there an example of a large, completed, relatively modern, two unit pressurized water reactor that was shut down with so much potential operating life remaining. One of the slow-moving events that kept David focused on questioning the Zion decision was the inexorable rise in natural gas prices throughout the period from 1998-2008.
David discovered that there had been some non-public agreements about Zion’s steam generators between Commonwealth Edison and Westinghouse that settled the ongoing suits. He found out that some local political leaders had been invited to closed-door meetings about the plant’s fate and later swore that they would never reveal what had been discussed. He received a letter from Exelon that dismissed his inquiry with a cryptic sentence that stated that Northern Illinois did not need the power that the plants could produce.
As an engineer with a questioning attitude, David simply could not believe that he was being told the truth. He spoke to operators and managers with first-hand knowledge of the plant’s actual conditions and determined that there was nothing wrong that could not be fixed with a bit of money and elbow grease. The total investment required would almost certainly amount to far fewer resources per unit of power output than those necessary to build new wind turbines or continue to operate high pollution coal plants needing significant modifications to meet Clean Air Act standards.
David has received personal phone calls of encouragement from old friends who are still leaders within the electrical power industry, but those friends are reluctant to support his efforts in public. After all, there is an unwritten rule within the boardroom circuit – you do not question the already “settled” financial decisions of companies that provide a significant portion of your sales volume.
After my conversation with David, which admittedly rambled a bit from topic to topic, I promised him that I would try to tell his story. I also promised to find out as many answers as I could to the questions that have bothered him for so many years. Why does Exelon refuse to revisit its decision to close Zion in the light of a different market, a different understanding of the environmental impact of burning fossil fuel and a different political situation? Why won’t Exelon offer the plant for sale if it considers restoring it too much of a deviation from its current capital investment strategy? Why shouldn’t the customers who paid for the facility have a say in its future?
I have one more question that David has not really asked – why are American businessmen so focused on short-term money making instead of long term strength building? I saw a quote at the bottom of an article about the Chinese wind industry that I want to share. I hope it makes some people think about the importance of focusing on the long term good when you are in a position of responsibility.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government is intent on turning its wind energy industry into the global leader, helping manufacturers coordinate export strategies and providing various sorts of technical assistance.
Mr. Li, the overseer of the Chinese renewable energy industry, publicly exhorted the leaders of the nation’s biggest wind turbine makers at the China
Wind Power conference, a three-day event that drew hundreds of executives from around the world.
“You cannot be called a winner if you are the leader for three or five years,” Mr. Li told the Chinese executives. “You can only stand on the top line if you are the leader for 100 or 200 years.”
The Chinese presidents sat quietly and respectfully, chins down. Senior executives from the foreign manufacturers — including Vestas, G.E. and Gamesa — sat alongside them, staring straight ahead in stony silence.
Why is it that American business and political leaders think that taking action now that will provide almost certain benefits in 10-20 years is too hard? It is a darn good thing that the parents of future doctors, concert pianists, Olympic athletes, and research engineers who are in elementary school today do not take such a short term view of the world.