It's been decades since the Seabrook Nuclear Generating Station went online, providing clean baseload energy to customers in New England. And thanks to the work of IBEW members who navigated a long, complex project, the plant now has decades more to go.
"We have safe energy for the next 40 years," said William Perry, membership development manager for Dover, N.H., Local 490. "We are so proud to have this in our state to add to the power grid."
When the Seabrook management team determined that it needed to do an equipment upgrade, it was looking at a costly, yearslong project that could afford no errors. As with anything that is going on 40 years old, there were parts of the facility that had run their course and needed to be replaced. So they went with IBEW signatory contractor State Electric.
"It had nothing to do with who was the lowest bid. They went with the highest qualified," Perry said. "There's a lot of trust there."
For the last five years, roughly 50 IBEW inside wiremen from Local 490, as well as Boston Local 103 wiremen, Boston Local 104 linemen and some travelers, were busy upgrading the remainder of Seabrook's 345-kilovolt switchyard. They installed new circuit breakers, gas-insulated bus systems, relay protection systems, and new structures and foundations as required. And this wasn't work for just anyone off the street. This is a nuclear power plant, where everything is regulated and safety is paramount.
"Safety was always the first step," said Local 103 member Chris Hemenway, who worked as the general foreman on the project. "There was no cutting corners."
And because of that mindset and all the safety measures, they got through the whole project — some 130,000 electrical work hours — without a single accident or service interruption.
"That's very rare," Hemenway said of their achievement. "It's almost nonexistent."
Part of the reason for the impressive safety record was all the training that members received.
"There was a lot of training before you even set foot on site," said Hemenway, who worked on a similar project with State Electric in Ohio, albeit on a smaller scale. "You had to buy in to some seemingly extreme safety measures. It was a pretty significant mindset."
The workers got training in all the do's and don'ts of working at a nuclear facility, where something that might take just a few people on a regular construction site takes two or three times that many to make sure it's done properly. Even something like loading materials onto a truck required multiple spotters to make sure everything was being watched — the equipment, the tools, the people.
"You could have as many as six people spotting you to make sure no one fell," Hemenway said. "It was about making sure no one was in harm's way."
Perry noted that the workers, some of whom may not have even been born when Seabrook was last under construction, got a generational opportunity.
"This new generation had a hands-on chance to do these installs, and now they can pass that knowledge on to the next generation," he said. "It's very rewarding to hear and see."
An unexpected hurdle that came up after the project started was the COVID-19 pandemic. IBEW members were considered essential, so they had to figure out how to work through protocols like social distancing, the daily cleaning of work areas and masking.
"It added another twist to the whole setup," Hemenway said. "It was logistically more difficult, but we got through it."
In all, IBEW members, working in composite crews, installed four new circuit breakers, 68,000 feet of new cable and 4,400 new wire terminations. They also installed, gassed and tested 9,000 new feet of gas-insulated bus and completed 5,200 existing wire determinations.
"This is one of the largest projects that 490 has worked on in a long time," Perry said of his 325-member local.
For a project that clocked a total of 350,000 manual and non-manual work hours with zero accidents or first-aid cases, it's certainly something to be proud of.
"It's an impressive set of statistics," Hemenway said. "The scope and scale of the project can be overwhelming to look at as a whole, but when you step away it's really impressive. I'm proud to say I was a part of it."
Another example of the high level of IBEW craftsmanship could be seen early on, said Local 490 member James Casey, who worked on a preliminary stage of the project from its earliest days in 2009. The first phase, he said, was to construct a building 52 feet above an existing energized 345-kilovolt switchyard. The building housed multiple breakers, buses and control power, and it was all to be completed and connected to the power plant's existing system, which they would eventually replace in its entirety.
"I do not think that this had been attempted at any nuclear facility in the country or has been since," Casey said. "The fact that this very complex project was completed as safely as it was is something that all the men and women of Local 490 can be very proud of. The craftsmanship was second to none."
There's even new work on the horizon. Perry says the plant has a 345-kilovolt capacitor bank project that went out to bid in the fall of 2022. This is in addition to the work that members get from the yearly scheduled outage for facilities maintenance.
"Our members have a familiarity with the plant that makes them well-versed and well-seasoned," Perry said. "And Seabrook values our workers."
Casey, Hemenway and Perry give credit to the full team for the project's success, including New Hampshire Transmission, the company that hired State Electric.
"NHT is good at hiring people," Hemenway said. "A lot of companies might have gone with the lowest price, but that's not always the best fit. To get the skill, and the personality, you have to pay more, but in the end you're paying for success. You're paying for that professionalism."
As for people who think that unions don't work, Hemenway says just look at what they accomplished.
"It speaks volumes to how the IBEW can take a task that sizable and be successful," he said. "Now the customer is happy, and everybody went home safe."
Local 490 Business Manager Marco Lacasse added: "We know that the resiliency and reliability of the electrical grid is essential and nuclear plants contribute to that by having a baseload that is always available and doesn't fluctuate. Having the best-trained and reliable work force that the IBEW offers is also an essential component to reliability. Reputation is everything in this business. Do what you say and say what you do. It's not an accident to have State Electric along with the IBEW complete this part of the job. Quality is never an accident."