Southern Nuclear Operating Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Atlanta, Ga.-based Southern Company, provides about 20 percent of the electrical power consumed in the states of Alabama and Georgia, which have a combined population of more than 13 million people, and also supplies energy to customers in Florida and Mississippi. Roughly 3,500 employees working in three plants generate all of the company’s nuclear power.
“Southern Nuclear’s mission is to operate our nuclear plants safely, reliably and economically, in that order,” said Paul Rushton, general manager of nuclear support at the Vogel Electric Generating Plant.
“Training is a big part of that, and any tool we use to accomplish that effectively is important,” added Bob Bartles, nuclear plant instructor and LMS administrator at the Edwin I. Hatch Plant.
Due in large part to high-profile mishaps in nuclear power, singular emphasis has been placed on safety standards and regulations, and making sure that those who are employed in this field understand what is needed to keep a plant operating securely and smoothly. In fact, Rushton mentioned that findings after the Three Mile Island incident showed that inadequate training was a significant factor in the accident. “That really kicked the industry in gear,” he said. “The performance improvement of the (Southern Nuclear) plants in the last 20-plus years since Three Mile Island happened has been tremendous.”
To ensure compliance with safety regulations, Southern Nuclear goes through a nearly perpetual, multi-tiered process of assessment, Bartles and Rushton said. This includes government inspections performed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), accreditation conducted by the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) and self-assessments carried out by teams comprised of experts from Southern Nuclear and other utility providers from across the country.
“The Institute of Nuclear Power Operations has an academy that accredits training programs across the country at nuclear sites,” Rushton said. “There are well-established standards for what those programs have to satisfy. Most of our training programs are accredited. The accrediting body re-accredits the programs every four years. We’re required, as part of that whole process, to do assessments on ourselves. Periodically, the accrediting body will send a team back to each plant site and re-accredit.” Because of the constant examination, Southern Nuclear and other accredited nuclear power providers cannot ever slacken their safety policies. “You can’t fall-off,” Rushton said. “You can’t get accredited and then say, ‘Well, I’m good to go.’ They make us keep our eye on the ball.”
“That requires a lot of change management,” Bartles said. “We’re constantly bombarded by changes and regulations.” However, the changes have been for the better, in terms of increasing capacity and decreasing human error. In less than 15 years, Southern Nuclear’s reactor unit capability factors have increased by more than 25 percent. Additionally, in that same period, collective radiation exposure has decreased by more than two-thirds. “Our focus is always on: Is training targeting the problem areas, and are we improving performance?” Rushton said. “We’re never satisfied with the status quo. Our overall philosophy is one of continuous improvement. We always want to be striving to get better.”
Southern Nuclear uses an assortment of methods, which are often blended together to deliver learning that will ensure enhanced compliance and expertise, including on-the-job training, instructor-led lectures with supplemental PowerPoint presentations or hands-on demonstrations of equipment, and laboratory education in areas such as chemistry, health physics and computers, Rushton said. Perhaps the most sophisticated platforms, though, are the physical simulators, which replicate the environment of each power plant control room.
“There’s a complete mock-up of the entire control room, with every switch, knob, meter, gauge, scale face, you name it,” Rushton said. “All the switches, meters and gauges are connected to a computer, which has a simulation program that it runs to behave the way the plant would behave if you were really at the control room of the plant. We’re able to start up the plant, shut down the plant, exercise various procedures in the plant and train operators to respond to casualty situations, the ‘what if’ scenarios.”
Because learning obligations are rigorous, Southern Nuclear tracks employee participation and proficiency. “We use qualification checklists that have specific learning objectives and criteria in them,” Rushton said. He added that the figures are gathered and preserved by Plateau’s learning management system (LMS). “It helps us keep organized. We use it to maintain records of training and qualifications for all of our employees. It’s also used to employ computer-based training and used to coordinate the administration of computer-based exams following computer-based training.” After successful completion of required learning programs, employees go through an on-the-job evaluation, Bartles said.
The efficacy of education at Southern Nuclear is demonstrated by its contribution to the success of the company in two of the most critical areas: keeping pace with rules and regulations, and raising the bar for workforce performance. “I’m confident that training pays dividends,” Rushton said.
Brian Summerfield is associate editor for Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.