Being an operator at a nuclear plant is as much a calling as a career. Like any specialized field, becoming an operator requires completing a demanding training regimen with the highest standards. Much like doctors take annual boards to maintain their license, licensed operators must demonstrate their proficiency, but they do so every five weeks.
There are three levels of operators: auxiliary or non-licensed operators (AO), reactor operators (RO) and senior reactor operators (SRO). To learn more about what it’s like to be an operator at each level, we spoke with Brian Lewis, an AO, Adam Miller, an RO, and Daniel Harrington, an SRO.
How do you become an AO, RO or SRO?
AO Brian: After applying, I took and passed the Plant Operator Selection Systems test, which is required to be interviewed. Then, I attended basic operator training for three months. You must pass this class with higher than an 80 average to move to the next step. Then, I took a systems class at my plant. This course teaches how a plant operates. Students are tested weekly during this class with the same requirements as basic operator training. Next you are assigned a shift and begin the qualification process. The plant is divided into watch stations, or zones. Each watch station has a specific qualification process, consisting of specific tasks on which operators must train, complete and be evaluated. Once the process is complete for a watch station, you have a review to evaluate your knowledge and assess your readiness to stand watch. After passing this review, then you are qualified to stand watch.
RO Adam: I became a Reactor Operator through the normal progression. I was hired as an Auxiliary Operator and completed the necessary training and qualification process. When I gained enough experience, I applied for the Reactor Operator position. Once selected, I had to complete numerous tests, both operating and written, and maintain a level of knowledge to be successful.
SRO Daniel: There are two ways to become a senior reactor operator: the direct SRO or upgrade SRO process. A direct SRO candidate will hold a technical degree and has the potential to earn an SRO license at the end of their training. An upgrade SRO candidate will complete their training to transition from a RO to SRO. Regardless of which way, someone must first complete an 18-month Initial License Class that consists of classroom instruction, simulator training, in-plant training and self-study on different procedures. At the end of class is a two-week Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) evaluation consisting of simulator scenarios with numerous failures to demonstrate the operating crew’s ability to respond and mitigate the problems. The evaluation includes job performance measures, which evaluate the operator’s ability to perform hands-on work in the Control Room and in the plant. Finally, there is a challenging written exam.
What do you do as an AO, RO or SRO?
AO Brian: I perform observations on our plant equipment each shift. AOs are required to rotate through each of the watch stations at least once every 3 months to maintain our proficiency. We perform equipment inspections and testing on various plant equipment and document anything unexpected from those tests. We also hang and lift clearances on plant equipment so it can be worked on while it is in a safe condition. AOs also attend continuing training throughout the year and are tested on plant knowledge in order to maintain qualifications.
RO Adam: I monitor multiple parameters for trending and bring concerns about abnormalities to the Control Room Supervisor or Shift Manager, who are SROs. I interact with other work groups to perform required maintenance and testing. I also communicate with field operators and perform Control Room actions for operations inspections and tests. I respond to plant alarms and take necessary actions to mitigate events.
SRO Daniel: My responsibilities as an SRO are to always put the health and safety of the public as priority. I also train to respond to any abnormalities or failures of plant equipment. What’s unique about being an SRO is that I maintain oversight in the Control Room. I also review Operator rounds, procedures and completed operations inspections and tests. I screen and approve work requests, review work orders and give permission for work to start.
What’s a typical day like as an AO, RO or SRO?
AO Brian: Auxiliary operators perform rounds early during each shift. We have various surveillance tests each week that must be performed as requirement by the NRC. The schedule of tests varies from week to week. Each watch station has their own set of tests, and the AO assigned to that watch station is usually the lead for these tests. We typically have eight AOs per shift, and everybody pulls their weight and helps out accordingly.
RO Adam: As a RO, you to take multiple sets of logs, maintain parameters of the reactor, maximize generation while focusing on safe, error-free performance. I also interface with work groups to complete scheduled activities.
SRO Daniel: An SRO coordinates within Operations and with other groups about scheduled work to be performed that day. I authorize work activities that will take place in the plant during the day. As part of that, I brief AOs and ROs about the changes in power level and scheduled equipment inspections and testing, review operator rounds logs and the results of surveillance tests. I also attend schedule accountability meetings and keep management aware and informed about plant activities.
What advice would you offer to someone who might be interested in a career in nuclear operations?
AO Brian: Be willing to work hard, study a lot and leave your ego at home. Our main goal is to protect the health and safety of the public by running the reactor safely and error-free. This means someone looking over your shoulder and evaluating your performance on a constant basis. There is a team mentality here, so someone should be able to work well with others and be comfortable in receiving coaching. We are all here to make each other better.
RO Adam: If you enjoy being challenged, Nuclear Operations will deliver. If a rewarding career is what you’re looking for, you can find it. If career advancement is an aspiration, Operations has that, too. If these things are an interest, I would encourage someone to take a leap of faith and go for it.
SRO Daniel: It’s important for someone to be very open and receptive to coaching from individuals, have a questioning attitude and be prepared to continuously train. Working in Operations, means being prepared to work rotating shift work (nights/weekends), working outdoors in various climates and conditions and taking part in about a month-long refueling outage every 18 to 24 months, depending on your site. Being an operator requires a commitment to upholding fleet, site and department standards.
No appointment necessary: tour a control room simulator!
You've heard it before: nuclear operators train one out of every five weeks. Why? Because safe, reliable operations are imperative to nuclear generation. Hands-on training takes place in the control room simulator, an exact replica of the plant control room. Let's take a peak inside.