Zachary Drake, who learned learned about nuclear power in school earlier this year, got to see how a real-life nuclear plant works during a community information night at the Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station in Delta, Pa. Wednesday evening.
Zachary, 10, who has completed the fourth grade at Youth's Benefit Elementary School in Fallston, checked out the instrument panels in the plant's control room simulator while his grandfather, David Fyhr, looked over his shoulder and discussed what they were seeing.
"I like it; it's fun and cool," Zachary said.
He attended the open house with his grandfather and mother, Suzanne Drake, of Abingdon.
"It's just really existing for us to see, because we've never seen this type of place before," Drake said.
They were part of a multitude of visitors who streamed through a facility designed to be an exact replica of the plant's control room and used for training nuclear reactor operators.
"You have to know what it all does, so it's a learning experience, too," Zachary said.
The simulator is used for in-service training sessions for licensed operators as well as those who are in training to get their license, according to Bob Artus, a simulator instructor.
The plant, which is owned by Exelon Generation and Public Service and Gas of New Jersey, is powered by two boiling-water reactors that went into service in 1974.
The units are called Unit 2 and Unit 3; they generate a combined 2599 megawatts of electricity, and the plant serves 2.25 million customers in the region, according to the Peach Bottom website.
Units 2 and 3 were preceded by Unit 1, a prototype 40 megawatt high temperature helium-cooled and graphite-moderated reactor, or HTGR, that was in operation from 1967 to 1974, according to the website.
That means commercial nuclear power has been generated at Peach Bottom, 21 miles north of the heart of Bel Air, for the past 50 years.
Suzanne Drake noted the visit to the plant was an opportunity for her son "to actually understand where the electricity is coming from and how it's created."
"Nuclear power is very similar to all other [power] generating stations, in that we use boiling water to make steam and then steam to run the generator," Artus, the instructor, said.
He explained how the boiling-water reactors work. The control rods in the reactor core heat water until it boils and turns into steam.
The steam is then dried using moisture separators and sent through steam lines to power the turbines.
The other type of commercial nuclear reactor is called a pressurized water reactor, according to Artus. He noted the main difference between pressurized and boiling water reactors is that the water is not turned into steam in the core of a pressurized water reactor.
The water is just heated in the core, sent to a steam generator where it runs through a heat exchanger, boiled in a secondary facility and sent to the turbines.
Artus said one type of reactor is not more efficient than the other; they are just the types developed by energy providers General Electric (boiling water) and Westinghouse (pressurized water) at the beginning of the era of commercial nuclear power.
Visitors could see Peach Bottom's storage area for spent fuel rods. Plant operators use uranium-238 and enriched uranium-235, according to John Nelson, an instructor in dry cask storage and fuel handling who explained to visitors how spent fuel is transported and stored on site.
The rods are stored in pressurized lead and steel casks. Nelson stressed the casks are in the "safest configuration possible," as they do not need any water or power to keep themselves stable.
There is a heavy security presence covering the plant property. Exelon staff noted it is guarded by a "paramilitary" security force. Nelson also noted for visitors that the plant is covered by cameras and sensors.
Visitors could also see some of the equipment used by security officers and even "shoot" a rifle at a target under the supervision of an officer — the weapon was equipped with a laser that simulated a bullet.
The plant is along the west bank of the Susquehanna River in southern York County, Pa., about five miles from the Mason-Dixon Line that marks the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Communities in northeastern Harford County are part of the 10-mile Emergency Planning Zone around the plant. Sirens are placed throughout the zone to warn residents of an emergency at the plant; an annual test of those sirens was scheduled for June 7.
Christine Kelly, a Harford County Public Schools administrator who will be an assistant principal at North Harford Middle School starting July 1, walked among the visitor displays with her HCPS colleague Susan Austin, director of special education.
They attended at citizens, but also met plant staff whom they invited to visit schools in Harford.
"It's a good evening to come out and be an informed citizen," Austin said.
Kelly, who had been an assistant principal at Fallston Middle School, noted her new school in Pylesville is about 20 minutes' drive from Peach Bottom.
"I just think the consumer needs to be aware of what's happening out there and where we get our energy from," she said.