Nuclear station takeover

Young engineers learn what it takes to operate a nuclear reactor

At 8:30 a.m., 20 millennials eagerly awaited instructions from senior reactor operators at McGuire Nuclear Station. As the operators oriented the group to the myriad of buttons, knobs and screens, the novices remained quiet and focused, trying to take in the complexities of their new surroundings.  After a brief demonstration, several engineers, most of who had never been in a nuclear control room before, assumed their positions at the controls.

Suddenly, alarms sounded and lights flashed. Unsure exactly what to do, the young employees looked around for guidance in their attempts to diagnose and correct the ever-worsening problems with the reactor. Then, just as suddenly, all was quiet.

“I have control,” said Christopher Bush, a nuclear training instructor running the scenario at McGuire’s control room simulator. Bush proceeded to explain what happened in the simulation as licensed operators demonstrated the appropriate response.

The simulator, which is an identical replica of the nuclear station’s control room, is used for training exercises to ensure operators can quickly and correctly respond to any issue that may arise. This exercise was part of a program to provide employees not currently working at a nuclear plant the opportunity to learn what it’s like to be a senior reactor operator (SRO).

The young engineers observed how fluidly the licensed operators worked together as a team, the product of extensive classroom and on-the-job training and decades of experience. “They made it look so easy,” said senior nuclear engineer Christine Johnsen of the reactor operators. “It was definitely a lot more difficult for us.” 

Commercial nuclear power plants have several types of operators, including two that work in the control room Reactor operators (ROs) manipulate the nuclear plant’s controls and senior reactor operators (SROs) direct the activities of the ROs. Both require a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and extensive, ongoing training. “We train to recognize which procedure to use, why to use it and how to execute it,” said Robin Bell, a nuclear control room supervisor and licensed operator for more than 40 years who participated in the demonstration.  In fact, licensed operators spend one out of every five weeks they work in continuing training.

“Licensed operators have an enormous responsibility to generate electricity while protecting the public,” said Larry Shorey, an evaluator at the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), which accredits utility nuclear training programs. Because of that great responsibility, operators must meet high industry standards and exemplify those standards for their fellow workers.

Operating a nuclear reactor not only requires understanding complex equipment and procedures, but assimilating information in real-time and reacting quickly to changing plant conditions. “You can really see what a difficult job it is and how many things there are to pay attention to. The most difficult part was receiving audio commands and having to remember what you need to do,” said Brad Black, a nuclear engineer in Duke Energy’s corporate office who took a turn in the control room simulator.

The sentiment was echoed by nuclear fuels engineer, Amanda Lang, who stepped up to read control room procedures. “I thought it would be fairly easy, but you have to talk very fast and you can’t be polite. You have to get to the point and that was not intuitive to me.” For many in attendance, the skill set and daily routine of the reactor operators was very different from their own; many of those in attendance spend much of their time at a desk. “In my job, I run a lot of simulations, but it’s not very hands-on. This gave me an opportunity to really see cause and effect,” said Lang.

But for most, the rigorous training and hands-on work is not off-putting. In the technical, procedure-driven nuclear culture, reactor operations is highly regarded and seen as an important skill for those interested in becoming an industry leader. After their experience in the control room simulator at McGuire, many engineers view a career as an SRO in a new light. “I’d definitely consider it now,” said Lang.

What does it take to become a nuclear operator?

Obtaining a senior reactor operator license requires years of training and experience including:  

  • Careful screening and testing before being considered for a career in operations

  • Previous experience working in nuclear operations or engineering outside the control room

  • A year of training of SRO-specific training, including control room observation, classroom instruction and training in the control room simulator

  • Successful completion of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission license exam, which must be renewed every six years.

  • Annual operations tests given by Duke Energy and more than 240 hours of training each year

 

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