Brian Tindell climbs a steep flight of metal stairs deep inside the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant. Giant ventilation fans as big as jet engines roar in the background as he walks on a high platform around a hulking piece of machinery.
Tindell, who’s wearing a hard hat, safety goggles and earplugs, shines a flashlight and peers into the maze of pipes and valves on the plant’s emergency 1,000-horsepower diesel generator.
“One of the things I look for is any sign of leaks,” Tindell explained. “I make sure the valves are lined up correctly.”
Every nuclear plant has an emergency back-up power system. It must be maintained, tested and be failure-proof in case the plant were to lose electrical power.
Making sure the generator stays in tip-top shape is just part of what Tindell does as one of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s resident inspectors at Comanche Peak.
Under a program begun in 1977, the NRC stations two resident inspectors at each of the nation’s 104 commercial nuclear power plants. Some of the larger ones have up to three resident inspectors. Each one can serve up to seven years at any one site.
Resident inspectors live in the area of the plant – Tindell and his wife live in Granbury. The on-site inspectors provide “first-hand, independent assessment of plant conditions and performance,” the NRC said.
“It’s all about objectivity and to get a fresh set of eyes,” Tindell said. “We make sure security barriers are in place and security officers are where they’re supposed to be.”
John Kramer is the other inspector at Comanche Peak. He and Tindell scrutinize the licensee, Luminant, to make certain it follows safety and security procedures and addresses any lapses or problems as soon as possible.
If the NRC ends up granting Luminant a license to operate two additional nuclear reactors, the construction site would add two of its own NRC resident inspectors.
Operations resident inspectors also can get assistance from specialists and inspectors from the nearest regional office. In this area, Region IV, the office is located in Arlington.
Tindell, who’s 30, has been working at the Comanche Peak plant for two years. He graduated from Oklahoma Christian University with a mechanical engineering degree in 2003. While in school, he did an internship with the NRC and was offered a job after graduation. He underwent “rigorous training” to become qualified as an inspector.
Monitoring outside events, such as weather or the recent gas line explosion, also is part of the resident inspector’s job.
“These plants were designed to withstand a tornado,” Tindell said. Even so, when there’s a tornado watch in the area, he walks around the plant to make sure there’s nothing loose that might become a projectile.
When a gas pipeline exploded east of Glen Rose several earlier this month, killing a utility worker, Tindell went to the control room at the plant to monitor the fire and its location.
Filling out paperwork – this is the federal government, after all — is part of the job, too. But Tindell said he likes to get out into the plant as much as possible rather than sit at a desk.
“We try to spend as much time as we can in the field,” Tindell said as he led the way across the plant's upper deck with the two containment towers looming overhead. “It’s where the rubber meets the road for safety – in the plant. The objective of everything I do is to ensure the safety of the plant and security.”
Comanche Peak each day compiles a list of all the work being done, such as maintenance, repairs and emergency drills. Tindell reviews that and attends the “plan of the day” meeting. He reports the plant’s status to the NRC daily.
In the nuclear power industry, redundancy is the name of the game. The goal of the NRC and Luminant is to instill a culture of safety and security. It’s drummed into employees with signs, posters, procedures to follow and the knowledge that inspectors for both the company and the regulatory agency are watching.
Tindell said he looks at how security is being maintained throughout the plant. Anyone entering the facility must first pass through a “sniffer” that blows puffs of air up and down the body and sniffs out weapons, explosives or ammunition. The next step is passing through a sensitive metal detector operated by a heavily armed guard.
“Before 9/11 the plant already was very secure,” Tindell said. “It’s way more secure than an airport.”
Each employee identification card or visitor’s pass has a magnetic stripe on the back that must be swiped at turnstiles, doors and other security barriers. Some areas require a handprint as well. Tindell is on watch for any lapses.
“It’s very well armed,” Tindell added. “I’d say the site is very well protected from terrorists.”
The majority of his inspections take place in the Radiologically Controlled Area, or RCA, where the plant’s radioactive materials are located, and in the control rooms because “that’s where the safety equipment is,” Tindell said. Each reactor at Comanche Peak has its own control room.
Before entering the RCA, workers and visitors must wear a device that monitors radiation levels. They are recorded before and after going to the area. Ours measured no traces on a recent visit.
The control rooms at Comanche Peak are all digital. Instead, they look like something out of the original “Star Trek” series, with analog gauges and meters and blinking lights.
“The vast majority of this is pipes and flows and valves,” Tindell said. “They need to be in a certain position to be ready to respond. So I walk down and look at the flows and pressures and what’s on and what’s off.
“No lights are on, so not a lot of work is going on today,” he added.
While the oil industry had come under scrutiny since the recent Gulf oil spill for its close ties to regulators, Tindell noted that NRC inspectors purposely are moved around plants to avoid a too-cozy relationship.
He described his relationship with workers at Comanche Peak as “cooperative and congenial, but not too close.”
But he added, “it’s important to maintain a relationship so that people feel free to come to us with any safety concerns.”
The licensee, Luminant, “wants this place to be safe as well,” Tindell concluded. “But it’s really good to have an industrial regulatory agency where the main motive is being safe rather than generating electricity.”