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Looking back on 35 years of power generation at Cook Nuclear Plant

by on September 13, 2010


Cook retiree Kayo Murphy proudly displays his signed copy of the original source range neutron rate strip chart from the day the Cook Unit 1 reactor went critical.

BRIDGMAN, Mich. — In 1975, the Viet Nam War ended, Jimmy Hoffa disappeared, a gallon of gas cost 44 cents and D.C. Cook Nuclear Plant Unit 1 began generating electricity.
On August 23, 2010, Cook Plant personnel recognized the 35th anniversary of commercial operation for Unit 1. It’s a span that has produced more than 211,000 gigawatt hours of gross generation, and probably just as many memories for the thousands of people who have worked there through the years.

“A lot has changed in 35 years, but we’re very proud of our history and appreciate those pioneers who designed, built and then first operated this plant,” said Larry Weber, AEP’s chief nuclear officer and senior vice president.

“It was a big deal back then -– and it still is today. We can never forget the very special obligation we have to safely operate this plant, and what this plant means to our customers and company,” Weber said.

Fortunately, a few of those pioneers still work at the plant, and a few more still regularly meet for breakfast at a diner just about a mile down the road from the plant.

Rich Vonk was a 22-year old auxiliary equipment operator when Cook Unit 1 first “went critical,” or began a sustained nuclear fission chain reaction. “That happened in January of 1975, and we did several months of testing online and offline before we officially began commercial operation,” said Vonk, now a senior operations training instructor.

The man at the controls during the first nuclear chain reaction was Kayo Murphy, now 84 and retired, but still living in the area. Murphy remembers those days clearly and is very proud of the early days of plant operation.

“The control room was packed with people — bosses, local politicians and on-lookers,” said Murphy. “We knew it was a big deal, and we all signed the original source range neutron count rate strip chart and got a copy. I still have mine today.”

Murphy, one of the many early Cook employees recruited from the company’s coal plants, worked at Clinch River Plant in Virginia. He regularly attends the Wednesday morning breakfast that typically includes between 10 and 20 retired Cook employees.

Former Cook employee Kayo Murphy (right) monitors the controls during the first nuclear chain reaction at Cook Plant.

Stories about being inside the reactor vessels and crawling through reactor coolant piping dot the conversation — but they recognize that not everything they did back then would meet the safety standards of today.

Jack Schwerha, still called “Toad” by everyone, was in the first license class held at Cook. He recalls writing the name of the “C Shift” operators in magic marker on the very top of the ceiling of the containment building of both units before they went online. “I put a plank on top of the handrail to write it. We got in trouble and they painted over it, but I got back up there and did it again before we started up,” said Toad.

On the day of this interview, five of the attendees were original license holders, and one former assistant plant manager, Ken Baker, started with AEP after being the original NRC inspector at the plant. He joined AEP when the NRC wanted to transfer him to Washington, D.C.

Other members of the breakfast club worked in maintenance, construction and other departments. Many worked at other AEP facilities before coming to Cook. They recently gained a few new members after the company’s severance program earlier in the year.

The original plant manager was Bob Jurgensen, who is now retired and living in Worthington, Ohio, after ending his career with AEP in Columbus in 1988. He dates back to AEP before it was AEP, being hired by American Gas and Electric in 1949 at the Twin Branch coal plant.

The Cook control room was packed with people on the day Unit 1 went critical.

“Three of us from AEP joined a small group of people from five utilities to study nuclear power in Chicago at Argonne Labs from 1953 to 1955,” said Jurgensen in a phone interview. “When AEP decided not to build a nuclear plant right away I went back to Kammer Plant. In 1959 they called me to New York and we began the work of designing and building Cook.”

Jurgensen moved to the site during construction in 1966. The complexity of regulation for a nuclear plant surprised him compared to his previous work at coal plants. “We got a rude awakening when things just mushroomed on us in terms of the required paperwork during construction and what it really took to build the plant. We thought we could build it for $300 million and it ended up costing more than $1 billion,” said Jurgensen.

One aspect of nuclear power that Jurgensen didn’t see coming was the importance of community outreach and the development of the Cook Information Center.

“I fought Mr. Cook about building a center — mostly because I thought it was going to be a lot more work for me,” said Jurgensen. “But he was right. The Information Center played a crucial role in getting the public behind us in support of the plant and turned out to be a real blessing.”

The staffing size is one area that’s changed quite a bit over the years. Vonk said he was badge number 156 when they first began numbering badges alphabetically. “I’m not sure how many of us there were, but I was a “V” so there couldn’t have been too many more after me,” Vonk said. Today there are about 1,100 AEP employees at Cook.

Jurgensen stayed at Cook until 1977, after Unit 1 started, but before Unit 2 went online in 1978. He handed over the plant manager reins to Del Shaller and went back to AEP in New York but still remains a staunch supporter of nuclear power.

“I think it’s a great way to generate electricity and I’d still like to see more of it in this country,” he said.

Murphy remembered the teamwork and close nature of those first workers at the plant. “We worked hard and we were like a family. We sure had fun, didn’t we?” Murphy asked his old friends as the group was breaking up for that week. He answered the question himself. “We sure had a lot of fun.”

From → News From AEP

One Comment
  1. billbick permalink

    i worked for bob jurgensen both at the kammer plant and the cook plant. he was a great supervisor and a great man. never worked for anyone i thought more of.

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