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Simulator prepares for the worst

Simply by pressing his finger on a computer screen, Jack Springer caused 80,000 gallons of radioactive water to burst out of a pipe, setting off sirens and flashing lights and a possible meltdown of the nuclear power plant in Crystal River. Through a one-way window, this master of disaster watched the reactions of plant operators as heartbeats quickened, palms sweated and worried eyes roamed the hundreds of dials, meters and screens on the vast control board.

"You never know how guys are going to react when all this comes down on their shoulders," Springer said. "It really surprised me, the level of intensity we can generate in here."

Springer oversees the training and testing of Florida Power Corp. nuclear plant operators on the utility's new $9.5-million control room simulator.

The working replica of the actual control room is accurate right down to the distance from the control room to the toilet. The color of the carpet, the height of the ceiling, the fluorescent lights and the distance to the walls is the same.

Six massive speakers pipe in a digitized version of background ventilation noise. If an operator picks up the pager phone to find a worker, the background noise on the line differs depending on where the worker supposedly picks up the phone.

The instructor _ playing the part of the worker _ hits a button selecting his hypothetical location in the plant. If it's the turbine deck, for example, the whir of the huge turbine can be heard.

Before getting the simulator, Florida Power sent its operators to Lynchburg, Va., for training on a generic simulator that differed considerably from the actual control room.

The proximity of the new simulator _ located 15 miles southeast of the power plant at the utility's nuclear operations training center on Seven Rivers Drive _ will allow Florida Power to step up its training for operators from 60 to 100 hours a year, said Larry Kelley, director of nuclear operations training.

For a high school graduate with no experience, it takes four years to become a licensed operator. It takes another three years to become a senior operator and work as a supervisor or an assistant supervisor on the five-member shifts.

Those who come to the company with an engineering degree or experience in the U.S. Navy's nuclear submarine program can complete their requirements more quickly.

The 875-megawatt plant is run by two reactor operators who work the vast control panel. Two supervisors also work in the control room, and a chief nuclear operator comes in for anything unusual, from starting the plant up to an emergency.

It took Canadian company CAE Ltd. two years to build the simulator and develop the software for it. Some of the instrumentation had to be custom made, because it is no longer available. The power plant was built in the 1970s.

Once the simulator was completed, CAE tested it for 20 months before shipping it to Florida Power in March. Training on the simulator began on May 28.

The instructors carry out their devilry in front of computer screens in a raised room surrounded by one-way windows. They can see the operators, but the operators cannot look back at them. There are 18,000 leaks, mechanical failures and other things the instructors can do to the reactor.

They can vary the readings on monitors giving the wind direction and speed outside the plant, important considerations if operators are forced to release radioactivity into the air.

"We kind of get that God feeling," Springer said.

Schematic diagrams of the plant systems can be called up on the computer screen. All the instructor has to do is place his finger on a valve in the diagram, and he is presented with a whole series of possible valve failures from which to choose.

"You can humble the best operator who walked on two feet," Kelley said, "and we have to be careful of that."