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Arkansas Nuclear One Turns 50

8 min read

The state’s only nuclear power plant is turning 50, but retirement is not on its agenda.

Arkansas Nuclear One near Russellville is poised to work well into its 70s and beyond. Its first reactor, Unit One, licensed federally in May 1974, is approved to run until 2034, and its engineers and leaders at Entergy Arkansas expect it to last far longer.

ANO’s second reactor, Unit Two, went online in 1980 and is licensed through 2038.

“Our goal is to continue to operate these plants out to the 2050 timeframe,” said Doug Pehrson, site vice president for Entergy Nuclear, the plant operator. That means ANO would still be working at 76. “People here in the area want to keep this nuclear plant open and recognize the need for nuclear power … and the amount of engineering and maintenance that we do at our stations.”

Through a half-century of splitting uranium atoms to heat steam to turn huge generation turbines, the Entergy workhorse has powered millions of homes and businesses.

It also generated millions in economic activity for the Russellville area and the Arkansas River Valley.

The station weathered the nuclear protest era of the 1970s and ’80s and later rode out nuclear disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima with hardly a protest. A fatal industrial accident in 2013 tarnished the plant’s image. But it rebounded and endures as a valuable source of emissions-free power as climate change transforms traditional environmental views of nuclear energy.

ANO provides electricity for 56% of the utility’s 730,000 home and business meters, and 70% of Arkansas’ clean power. About 1,100 employees work on the 1,100-acre site, including contractors.

“I was in college at Arkansas Tech [in Russellville] from 1978 to  ’82,” retired Entergy resources manager Kurt Castleberry said. “Unit One was already online, and the whole town was very proud and they continue to be very proud of that. I don’t remember any protests. But I remember vividly when the second unit came online in 1980. I was a sophomore, and walking to class I’d see the water vapor coming out of the huge cooling tower. It was impressive.”

The gleaming white cooling tower soars 450 feet over Lake Dardanelle, a giant hyperboloid visible to thousands of people driving daily along Interstate 40. But the complex’s most distinctive feature wasn’t in the blueprints when construction began in October 1968.

John Hathcote, a 32-year engineer at the plant and now its maintenance director, tells the story.

“Unit One was built first, and the original plan was to build identical units side by side,” Hathcote said. Unit One used water from Lake Dardanelle to cool and condense the steam then sent it back into the lake. But once Unit One was running, planners building Unit Two realized the lake was too shallow to cool both.

“They did a study and had to shift gears, so we got a tower to reject the heat,” Hathcote said. “It changed the whole dynamic.”

Water pumped from the lake into the tower circulates through condenser tubes and absorbs heat from the steam that drives the turbines. The water then sprays onto a grid in the center of the tower. Cool air flows up from the hollow tower, passing over the warm falling water and evaporating some of it and cooling the rest. The water eventually goes back into the lake, and a small amount of warm, visible vapor rises over the tower.

Water and Rock

Construction costs were more than $300 million, the largest economic development project in state history at the time. That translates into more than $1 billion today, but as Pehrson pointed out, the four-unit Vogtle nuclear plant that started operating this year in Georgia had a total cost above $30 billion.

In a 1967 announcement with Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, Russellville Mayor C.A. Hughes called the nuclear plant’s arrival as “the greatest economic and scientific event” in Arkansas history. “My friends, just as we can expect a bright economic future for our county, so we can expect large gains in population, social advancement and scientific achievement for the Arkansas River Valley,” he said.

Russellville’s population grew from 8,921 in 1960 to nearly 30,000 today. And ANO added millions of dollars to Pope County school budgets in the first few years; it still pays several million dollars a year in state and local taxes, Entergy says, adding that it provides yearly grants of up to $100,000 to local nonprofits. The nuclear plant is the county’s second-biggest employer, behind Arkansas Tech University.

The plant site was chosen in 1967 over plots near West Memphis and on the White River between Augusta and Pine Bluff. Chief Engineer J.D. Phillips of Arkansas Power & Light, a forerunner to Entergy, favored the Russellville site because it offered plenty of water from Lake Dardanelle, a reservoir created by construction of the Dardanelle Dam in 1965.

Another advantage was a base of shale rock under 20 feet of clay, giving the plant a sturdy foundation. Readily available river, rail and interstate transportation also weighed in its favor.

Entergy emphasizes that the lake’s water never touches the nuclear reactors and remains clean. The plant is built to withstand extreme weather, but in 2011 The Daily Beast ranked it the 16th riskiest among 65 domestic nuclear units because of tornadoes and a threat of rare earthquakes. About 300,000 people live within 50 miles of the plant; it is more than 75 miles from Little Rock.

Control room operator Soulee Xiong is one of more than 1,000 full-time workers at Arkansas Nuclear One.
Control room operator Soulee Xiong is one of more than 1,000 full-time workers at Arkansas Nuclear One. (Provided)

During four years of initial construction, more than 500 workers a day flooded the job site. After construction ended in 1973, months of testing and licensing followed, and Unit 1 began operating commercially in December 1974.

The utility also said it continually invests in maintenance and updates.

“We have upgraded or are making upgrades on all of our systems, and we’re getting out in front of challenges,” said Hathcote, who got his engineering degree thanks to a football scholarship at Tech.

“Our main turbine control system we just revamped, for example,” he said. “The corporation is investing in the station to make sure we’re putting the engineering into it and all the design changes to set us up to go to 2034 and beyond.”

Hathcote said that steam generators, the largest components in pressurized water reactors, were swapped out in the 2000s, increasing efficiency. “And we have a plan that basically says we’ll continue to move our big components in and make upgrades. We’ve got a whole team of engineers looking ahead strategically to determine what components we need to replace.”

Replacing parts that are no longer being made can be a challenge. “A lot of electrical sub components, cards and modules, vendors don’t produce them anymore,” Hathcote said. “We have to have some ingenuity. We have engineers that can reverse-engineer these components. If we can’t find a widget, so to speak, we can make it ourselves until we can change the system outright.”

Nuclear One recently completed 500 consecutive days without any shutdowns, a feat that was impossible early in Hathcote’s career. “In the early 1990s, we would celebrate going 100 days without tripping. We got doughnuts. We called them 100-day doughnuts. So we’ve gotten much more reliable.”

Castleberry called ANO “incredibly valuable” through its history.

“Nuclear plants are really low cost [to fuel and operate], and they don’t emit any carbon,” he said. “Our customers these days are very in tune with reducing their carbon footprint, and without emissions-free power, businesses are not going to come here and existing industries are not going to expand.” He noted that power from ANO and from a solar field now under construction in Mississippi County helped U.S. Steel decide to build its newest plant in Osceola.

In 2019, the federal government estimated that by creating energy with nuclear fission rather than coal, ANO helped Arkansas avoid emitting 8.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

A Fatal Accident

Hathcote was running the Unit Two reactor in 2013 when ANO suffered its worst accident.

Unit One was shut down as industrial crews worked to replace a stator, the heavy stationary component of the generator.

The stator fell in a non-radiation area, killing one worker, Wade Walters, and injuring eight. There was never any risk to the public, but the accident ruptured a water pipe, knocking out power to Unit One and one train of Unit Two’s electrical system.

Hathcote described that day, March 31, 2013.

“We had a hot reactor, meaning we had to shut the plant down safely,” he said. “We rolled into the shutdown, and the cooling and everything worked like it was supposed to. Really, these plants will take care of themselves. But I can confirm that it was a challenging day for everybody.”

After the accident and a transformer fire in late 2013, ANO received one of the worst performance ratings among the nation’s nuclear plants. That brought more scrutiny and more federal inspections, but the plant’s performance steadily improved. By 2020, Nuclear One had gained the highest rating from the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, a private auditing agency, and had far better marks from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“It’s a special place, largely because of the employees,” Hathcote said.

“The community has always been 100% behind us, and our full-time workers are engaged in churches, communities and charities. I’ve coached wrestling, football, softball and baseball. I’m proud to wear my Entergy shirt in town.”

One of Pehrson’s old ANO engineering colleagues, Richard Harris, became mayor of Russellville in 2019 and served until the end of 2022. He’s now a radiation control specialist with the Arkansas Department of Health.

“It’s inevitable that I’ll be in town and without somebody knowing what I do at the station will ask me if I know so-and-so because he works there,” Pehrson said.

And Pehrson sees growing support for nuclear power far beyond Russellville and Pope County. “It seems like everybody is starting to recognize that we need nuclear generation while we go after clean renewables. I think the fear of nuclear power has subsided over the last few years.”

Li Chen Chen is a nuclear chemist at the power plant west of Russellville.
Li Chen Chen is a nuclear chemist at the power plant west of Russellville. (Provided)

At State’s Only Nuclear Plant, Details Make Difference

The 50-year-old plant west of Russellville comprises two reactor units and is the only nuclear power facility ever in Arkansas. It is owned by Entergy Arkansas Inc. and operated by Entergy Nuclear of Jackson, Mississippi.

The Unit One nuclear reactor was built by Babcock & Wilcox Energy of Akron, Ohio, and the generator was supplied by Westinghouse Electric Corp. of Pittsburgh. It has a maximum dependable capacity of 836 megawatts.

The Unit Two reactor was manufactured by Combustion Engineering of Stamford, Connecticut, and the generator was supplied by General Electric Co. of Boston. Its maximum dependable capacity is 988 megawatts. Together the units supply about 56% of all electricity demand from Entergy Arkansas’ 725,000 customers.

Both are pressurized light water fission reactors using uranium as fuel to create steam that drives turbines, creating electricity.

ANO was the largest construction project in Arkansas history at the time, with a total project cost of more than $300 million, more than $1 billion in today’s dollars.

The 1,100-acre station employs about 1,000 full-time workers and more than 100 baseline contractors assisting in daily activities.

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