MARSEILLES — Brock Pollmann knew he wanted to be involved in energy long before he became an engineer at Exelon’s La Salle County Generating Station in Marseilles.
His father was in coal, and Pollmann — who describes himself as a “very mechanical person” — became interested in nuclear energy as the future of the industry.
“We’re getting away from coal,” Pollmann said. “I think we’re going to be pushing pretty hard for nuclear in the years to come.”
Pollmann, who now lives in Morris, attended University of Illinois for engineering, interned two years at La Salle Station and, after graduating in 2011, was hired by Exelon as a systems engineer.
That’s made him part of an industry that’s been in the thick of one of the biggest debates in the menu of American discourse.
To get to that point, Pollmann had to get a competitive internship, complete two summer projects, and convince the top brass at Exelon to hire him full time.
But in many ways, it seems, his path began a lot earlier.
LANDING THE JOB
Growing up in southern Illinois, Pollmann and his father always worked on things together — mechanical things, like cars.
“I’m a very mechanical person,” Pollmann said. “I always liked working with my hands.”
He recalls a design project he undertook during college, where he was part of a team tasked with building a fuel-efficient car for an Eco-marathon — an annual competition hosted by Shell Global featuring more than 100 teams.
Pollmann’s team designed two cars — one using gasoline and another using alternative fuel. They won first place for an Ethanol engine they created.
That stuck with him — the desire to work toward something that would ultimately better the world.
“I wanted to do something that made a difference,” Pollmann said.
During his sophomore year, about 100 companies came to his college campus in Champaign-Urbana to recruit for internships. After talking with a representative from Exelon, Pollmann decided to apply.
It was a competitive process.
“I felt like one of a hundred [to get the internship],” Pollmann said.
He’d intern two summers at La Salle Station.
Each time, he had to complete a project and give a presentation on it.
The first project involved helping to redesign the way new valves are installed on machinery.
“I loved my first internship,” Pollmann said.
The second year, he worked on what he called component maintenance optimization.
In English, that basically means Pollmann had to find a way to do preliminary inspections of equipment to determine when it had to be replaced.
During those internships, he also got to go through various types of training, learn the interworkings of La Salle Station, and the differences between it and other nuclear power plants.
“I learned a ton,” Pollmann said.
At the end of the summer, interns deliver a presentation on their project to “big dogs” at Exelon, who also interview them for potential employment.
According to Megan Borchers, community relations manager at La Salle Station, 300 interns companywide are hired by Exelon Generation. Ninety-nine nuclear interns are hired.
“[Exelon’s] retention rate is incredible,” Pollmann said, noting that several people he interned with are now co-workers.
ON THE JOB
Since graduating in 2011, Pollmann has worked as a plant systems engineer in a team of nine other engineers. His responsibility is to manage the turbine and auxillary systems of the plant.
To understand what that means, you have to have a basic idea of how nuclear energy works.
The process begins when uranium atoms are split using fission, producing energy that becomes heat. The heat boils water, which spins turbines and then spins a generator shaft.
This spins wire coils in a magnetic field, producing electricity.
Pollmann’s job is to monitor aspects of the process and equipment, and predict possible failures.
“It’s just making sure the system is as healthy as it should be,” Pollmann said.
La Salle County Generating Station has two units that began operating in 1982 and 1984, respectively.
In 2012, the station generated 19.2 million megawatt hours, operating at a capacity of 94.9 percent.
It serves Chicago and other parts of Northern Illinois with electricity.
THE FUTURE OF ENERGY?
Though natural gas is cheaper right now, Pollmann said, he believes nuclear is the future of energy.
“I really think it’s the way the world is going to go,” Pollman said.
Thirteen percent of the world’s electricity is nuclear energy, and it is considered cleaner than many other energy sources, such as coal.
“It’s pretty much the safest thing that’s out there,” Pollmann said.
But there have been concerns about its safety in the wake of several high-profile disasters, such as the one that occurred following a massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011.
During a tour of La Salle Station, though, Pollmann said such disasters are rare and that the facility is extremely safe, with system upon back-up system ensuring problems do not arise.
He also said that, unlike many other industries, nuclear energy producers around the world constantly share information.
“It’s a very different industry,” Pollmann said. “That’s one of the coolest things about it.”
Communications Director Borchers emphasized the importance of safety at the plant.
“It is important for us to be open with the public and educate them about this,” Borchers said. “First and foremost, we’re about providing safe energy.”
While time will tell what energy source ultimately owns the market, people like Pollmann will be necessary to make it happen.
“The internship is great for us,” Borchers said. “We’re lucky to have people like Brock who go through the internship and educate themselves and do great things.”