Nuclear Plant Safety Brightens Future For Simulator Maker

October 20, 1991|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff writer

In the past year, S3 Technologies of Columbia has created 50 new jobs feeding on an industry that isn't growing at all in the United States: nuclear power.

S3, which manufactures simulated nuclear power plant control rooms, was among seven companies recognized by the Greater Baltimore Committee with its 1991 Venture Awards Thursday for helping strengthen the local economy by investing in new jobs and equipment.

Although the $50 million-a-year company has yet to gain the name recognition of county-based companies like the Rouse Co. or the Ryland Group, it has grown enough in three years to make it one of the county's largest employers with a staff of 440. The company opened in Howard in 1982 with less than 50 employees. In June, it moved into a new 160,000 square-foot building off Dobbin Road.

Despite the recession and despite the halt of nuclear power plant construction in the United States, the company has flourished largely because of concerns about the safety of nuclear power.

In fact, said Gill Grady, the company's director of contracts administration, the company's major expansions were triggered by reaction to accidents at Three Mile Islandand Chernobyl.

S3 currently is awaiting Soviet government approval of a contract for four Chernobyl-type reactor simulators, and Chernobyl is a potential site for one of them, said Grady.

He said thatthe recent upheaval in the Soviet Union and financing problems have delayed that approval.

The simulators cost from $10 million to $12million in the United States. But reactor control rooms overseas tend to be larger, so simulators can fetch prices between $15 million and $20 million.

After the worst U.S. nuclear accident, at Three Mile Island in 1979, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission required all nuclear plants to have simulators identical to their control rooms.

General Public Utilities Nuclear Corp., which runs the TMI plant, had used a generic simulator that did not exactly match its control room, Grady said.

The NRC grants licenses based on how well operators perform on a simulator.

Of the country's 77 nuclear-reactor-equippedfacilities, 76 have simulators and 40 of those were made by S3.

On April 26, 1986, an explosion and fire at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union's Ukrainian republic spewed radiation around the world and causedat least 32 deaths in nuclear power's worst disaster.

The Chernobyl accident sparked concern for nuclear plant safety worldwide, and orders for S3 simulators increased. Of 49 simulators outside the United States, 30 were made in S3's Columbia facilities.

The company has already produced two nuclear plant simulators in a joint venture with the Soviets' All Union Research Institute for Nuclear Power Operations, which trains plant operators. It has also done business with Germany, Sweden, Finland and Taiwan.

While simulators have made operators better prepared for some emergencies, there is a limit to theirtraining.

Because there has never been a meltdown in this country, the simulators can't reproduce the effects of one.

"You can go up to a certain point in an accident, and then no one knows what happens," Grady said.

The company buys the same equipment used in a control room and hooks it up to computers that simulate the way reactor cores, turbines, cooling systems and other components of a nuclear power plant react to commands from the control room.

In fact, what astudent on a simulator sees during a malfunction such as a stuck coolant valve is the same thing an operator would see in a control room.

"You can teach the operator to respond to emergency situations," Grady said.

Although no new nuclear plants have been built in the United States in several years, utility companies are now upgrading their simulators with newer, more accurate software and state-of-the art hardware, some of which is manufactured by S3.

Nuclear plant simulators make up about three-quarters of S3's business, which has always involved simulators of some sort.

Its earliest incarnation wasa company called Engineering Research Corp., in Prince George's County. The company made flight simulators for the Navy after World War II, and was influenced by simulator inventor Ed Link, whose name was attached to the company years later when it became Link-Miles Simulation Corp.

The company went through several ownership changes, including a purchase in 1968 by sewing-machine maker Singer. Singer owned Link-Miles for 20 years. It sold the company in 1988 to an entrepreneurial partnership, which in turn sold the sewing machine division andadopted the name Bicoastal Corp.

Link-Miles switched its name to S3 last year. The name stands for simulation, systems and services.

Although Bicoastal still owns S3, "we basically operate on our own,which has been really good for us," Grady said.

The company also makes simulators for large systems such as oil refineries and fossil-fuel power plants, as well as small vocational simulators for heatingand cooling systems and gasoline and diesel engines.

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