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Behind The Scenes At McGuire

Click photo to view an audio-slideshow tour of McGuire.

Click photo to view an audio-slidshow tour of McGuire. (Photo: Tanner Latham) Thirty years ago, Mecklenburg County was put on the nation's nuclear map. Duke Energy's McGuire Nuclear Station on Lake Norman went live. Since 9/11, the plant has been closed to public tours. But they did allow media in recently to tour some of the most secure areas. WFAE reporter Tanner Latham was part of that, and he's here to talk to us about some of the things he learned. SG: Security had to be pretty tight, right? TL: Absolutely. For starters before I even got there, I had to submit my social security number, birth date, and home address. They were doing a background check. I was issued a key card with my info on it that I had to swipe through numerous checkpoints. And, of course, we were escorted at all times. SG: So where did they take you? What did you get to see? TL: Now, we didn't see the actual nuclear reactor itself. But what we did get to see, the place where we were briefed on over and over again on what we could and could not do, was the spent fuel pool. This is where they store fuel rods after they have been in the reactor. We wore large cotton lab coats, two pairs of gloves, hard hats, and safety goggles. We had two different radiation monitors. My recording equipment-microphone and recorder-were both tethered to me. They duct taped shut all the openings on my camera-where the battery and memory card was stored. It was crucial that nothing fall into this pool. No screws, no paper clips, no earring backs. Nothing like that. If something had fallen in there, then it could have ended up damaging one of the rods. The pool itself was a little smaller than Olympic-sized. And the water was blue. I asked Regis Repko, the site Vice President, about the color: "There's a couple of things. There's chemicals added in terms of boric acid that help absorb the neutrons," he said. "That's one aspect. But particularly what you see with the fuel, and it is most prominent when it is discharged. But that is basically Cherenkov's radiation is what that's technically called. Basically, that radiation mechanism actually emits a blue-ish color." Now, we didn't see any glow or anything like that, but the water was definitely still blue. I took some pictures of if you can see on WFAE.org. SG: Any other "behind the scenes" information that you learned or found really fascinating? TL: One thing I found fascinating is that every three years, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, sends in their own team of "adversaries." These are former Navy SEALs and Army Rangers. They go throughout the facility, review all the security strategies, and then they literally create a plan for breaking into the plant. They cut the fence wires and everything. But they've never been able to penetrate the targets. Another interesting thing was the control room. It's at the heart of the plant. It reminded me of what I've seen of air traffic control centers. You had a bank of monitors and boards and reactor operators walking station to station keeping an eye on usage and operations. SG: Now, with all of those journalists there on the tour, what question kept coming up? TL: Definitely. Even though I genuinely felt safe, I think we were all still wondering the big what-if. What if some kind of a disaster happens at the plant? Fukushima kept coming up. Of course, that's the nuclear plant in Japan that suffered major damage and leaked radiation after the earthquake and tsunami this year. Repko made the point that the conditions were different. They're not likely to experience a tsunami coming off of Lake Norman. But one of the main reasons there were leaks at Fukushima was that the emergency generators cooling the nuclear reactors were disabled. So Repko talked about the backup diesel generators there. And he was adamant in explaining the plant's frequent training procedures for emergencies. He said they have emergency drills onsite every 6 to 8 weeks. And they do drills with the county and state agencies every two years. SG: Radiation exposure is always a big topic when discussing nuclear power plants. Were you exposed to any? What did you learn about that? TL: As far as I know, I was not exposed to any of any significance. We all had dosimeters, which measure the exposure, and mine cleared when I left. I did learn that radiation exposure there is actually quite low. Plant employees are monitored with those dosimeter devices. And Duke does not allow them to work if they are exposed to more than 5 rems per year. A rem is one dose of radiation. To put that into perspective, 5 rems is a little more than a GI tract x-ray. SG: Very interesting, Tanner. Thank you for sharing.