The 411 on Operator Training and Licensing

A focus on safety, commitment and accountability – these are the core elements of an effective nuclear reactor operator.

A nuclear reactor operator, senior reactor operator or anyone supervising the operation of a commercial nuclear reactor must be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The license is only valid to operate that specific facility and expires after six years.  At that time, just as with a driver’s license, the license can be renewed.

Words such as “extensive” and “rigorous” best describe operator experience. And, even the most experienced operators, prepare extensively for exam day!  Even before the extensive and rigorous NRC licensing begins, an applicant must undergo a physical examination and be qualified as physically and mentally fit to be an operator.

Ready to start the basic operator classroom training?  Then prepare for 31 weeks of  geometry, trigonometry, algebraic operations and equations, logarithms and graph interpretation; plant components such as pumps, valves, steam turbines, and electrical components; fundamental thermodynamic principles; plant chemistry and radiochemistry; reactor theory principles; plant specific training.

Upon successful completion of this stage, operators are not yet licensed. They do, however, continue attending requalification training every five weeks – 20 percent of their working career. This phase (which takes more than a year), includes hands-on control room simulator training, specific plant systems training, on-the-job observations, task qualification and much more. This culminates with the final NRC exam, which the individual must pass to be a licensed operator.

If a licensed reactor operator is interested in moving to the next career phase as a senior Nuclear Operatorreactor operator, additional years of training are required.

The operator training facility at Duke Energy received accreditation through the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations’ (INPO) National Academy for Nuclear Training Accrediting Board. In addition, INPO evaluates each plant’s training programs to identify strengths and challenges, and recommend improvements.

Duke Energy prides itself on having highly trained and experienced operators, and its nuclear plants are among the safest facilities in the nation. Safe and reliable operations is due to operators and all employees’ commitment to being  good stewards of public health and safety and the environment.

Capacity Factor – A Measure of Reliability

One way the energy industry measures the reliability of power plants is by regularly calculating capacity factors.

Capacity factor is the measure of how often a power plant runs for a specific period of time. It’s expressed as a percentage and calculated by dividing the actual unit electricity output by the maximum possible output. This ratio is important because it indicates how fully a unit’s capacity is used.

Capacity factors vary considerably by plant and fuel type (see graphic below). As you can tell, nuclear energy’s average capacity factor is above 90, meaning the average nuclear plant remains on line, generating electricity, more than 90 percent of the time.

Source: NEI

Source: NEI

In 2014, the 100 operating nuclear plants in the U.S. had an average capacity factor of 91.8 percent. This is the highest level ever recorded and attributed to the fact that nuclear plants had fewer and shorter refueling and maintenance outages and less unplanned outages. In 2014, the average refueling outage duration was 37.2 days compared to 41 days in 2013 and 46 days in 2012.

Another factor that increased the U.S. nuclear fleet’s 2014 capacity factor was the fleet’s strong performance in December 2014, when the capacity factor was 98.9 percent.

Operating at six sites in the Carolinas, Duke Energy’s 11 reactors set a combined capacity factor record of 93.18 percent in 2014. This marked the 16th straight year the fleet achieved a capacity factor greater than 90 percent. The fleet also had a capacity factor of 97.04 percent for the summer months (June – August).

Source: NEI

Source: NEI

In addition to supplying nearly 20 percent of America’s electricity, nuclear energy is a proven, dependable source, providing on-demand baseload electricity around the clock – whether during record heat or arctic cold.

High Standards Set for Nuclear Power Plants by INPO and WANO

The nuclear power industry is one of the most controlled industries in the world. Regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the industry has long adhered to stringent guidelines and inspections to ensure safe operations. In addition to the required regulations and standards, the nuclear power industry also actively and voluntarily participates in organizations such as the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) and the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO), both aimed at achieving the highest performance standards possible for nuclear power plants.

INPO was formed in 1979 by the U.S nuclear power industry after the investigation into the Three Mile Island accident. The mission of the organization is to set industry-wide performance objectives, criteria and guidelines for nuclear power plant operations. This is done by sharing operational experience between power plants and conducting plant evaluations at nuclear sites to identify both their strengths and areas for improvement. Although these evaluations are not required by the NRC, INPO evaluations are held to very high standards by the industry and the information gleaned from them is taken very seriously and acted on appropriately.

WANO, also not a regulatory body, is an international, non-profit group of nuclear power plant operators.  It was formed in 1989 following the Chernobyl disaster in an effort to prevent any recurrences worldwide. The group’s policies focus on effective communication and open information sharing, which is done in part by in-depth peer reviews and benchmarking. Mutual support and exchange of information among nuclear stations worldwide is the concept WANO uses to maximize the safety and reliability of nuclear power plants.

Although the mission of INPO and WANO are closely related, the execution of each organization is set up differently to create a robust arena of information sharing and evaluations that will benefit both the nuclear power plants in the United States and worldwide. The nuclear power industry regards the information and evaluations received from each organization equally as important, and views their feedback as indicators of their performance – past, present and future.