Jack and the nyukilar power plant

St Joseph, Michigan is a small town by the eastern shores of Lake Michigan. Known for “Cook”, ‘the hospital’ and ‘whirlpool’, this town has a fair share of outsiders. Its about Cook that we will talk about here

My first encounter with this name was while browsing through the classifieds looking for an apartment to lease. “Flexible lease for Cook employees” said the advertisement. I was also looking for a short term lease and those were difficult to come by in this town for some strange reason. And that too in winter. Wouldn’t you just want to get someone to occupy your rental during the lean winter season rather than shooing them away with need to sign a long term lease? Anyway, I sealed the deal with this particular apartment owner. While showing me around the place he told me that most of his other tenants are engineers from Cook, or “Cook Nyukilar” as he said. Its later I realized that Cook is a nuclear power plant about 2 miles down the road from the apartment. Last thing I expected in a sleepy town like this was a high tech nuclear power plant. In the beginning I was not sure whether I should be excited or worried about staying so close to a nuclear plant, with all the horrible things that you hear about nuclear disasters. I don’t think, “Oh there was meltdown at the nuclear plant, but we need to get out of the area only within 24hrs” is a realistic scenario. When I told my parents and in laws about it they seemed to be excited about it, so I thought ok, it seems to be alright.

As it turns out, my neighbor happened to be an employee at Cook. “Jack” as he was know, was a contractor, part of a team which specialized in upgrading nuclear plants across the US. He was a veteran at this job having spent close to 35 years traveling around the country and living at different plant sites for durations close to a year, year and a half. Most of the remaining part of this story are insights I have gained from my conversations with him. For someone who looked halfway between a drug addict and a cowboy (like the weathered ones you see in old Western movies), Jack was one of the most worldly wise persons I met during my stay in St Joseph. (This is including the engineers I worked with in my company). But unlike the Western heroes who always had a gun in their hand, Jack always had a bottle of Miller Lite beer in his! He drove around in a Texas registered F150 and also had beautiful show bike which I always wondered how he remained astride on. For the first month or so, all I ever heard of his voice from across the wall was when he was shouting some expletives on his phone.

To my surprise, I found out that the Donald C Cook nuclear power plant, was commissioned in 1975. And according to Jack many of the 50 odd plant in the US are of this vintage. These old plants need continuous updates and this where people like him stay in business. The reason for upgrades is to extend the life of the reactors. The major restriction in extending the life in an old plant like Cook, more than safety, it seems is the space for storing spent fuel. When the plant was designed, some amount of space would be earmarked based on the designed life and fuel usage. But with strategy of extending life taken up now, all these plants are suffering from space crunch.

I was asking him about effects of radiation. He says that each employee has to wear a radiation monitor which collects data that’s transmitted to a central database. The operator is supposed to hand over this data to regulatory agencies. Anything beyond prescribed limits incurs a heavy fine for the plant operator. Within the plant, depending on the role, each employee has a budget for a particular time frame like a day or a week. Till 9/11 happened, Cook had a visitor center open to public. Safety concerns has meant that access has been restricted to pre-arranged organizational tours, like from schools.

As I left the town and bid Jack goodbye, (yes, he was sitting at the Coach’s bar with a bottle of Miller lite in his hand when I last saw him) I remembered the days when I used to look up at the lights in my home and wondered if they were burning brighter with nuclear power.

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