Virginia Powers nuclear operations: Leading by example

Issue 2 and Volume 99.

Virginia Power`s nuclear operations: Leading by example

By Steven E. Kuehn, Senior Editor

Success has been a long time coming for Virginia Power?s nuclear units, but after a record run and some of the shortest refueling outages ever, the rest of the industry could learn a few things

The recipe for operating nuclear units at peak operating efficiency is not in any cookbook. Most utilities knew what was needed to get cooking: a well-built kitchen, all the latest plumbing and a heavy-duty pressure cooker with a nice tight lid to prevent spills. But once the kitchen was finished, many utilities found it wasn?t all that easy to boil water the nuclear way.

Virginia Power is a good example of just how difficult it has been for some utilities to find the recipe for success. In 1972 and 1973 the utility brought on line two 781-MW pressurized water reactors (PWR) at its Surry plant across the James River from Williamsburg, Va. By 1979, the utility was forced to replace each unit?s three steam generators?the first utility to do so in this country. The steam generator replacement outage for Surry Unit 2 lasted almost nine months while the outage for Unit 1 a little more than six months. In spite of the replacements, performance did not improve much and by 1989 lifetime capacity factors for both units hovered around 56 percent.

Surry?s physical condition was suffering as well and was likely the primary reason for the low capacity factors. Protracted outages starting in 1988 were called for to upgrade a variety of systems and components, but just as the outages were coming to an end, the plant was put on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission?s Owatch listO and stayed on it for a year.

During the same time frame, Virginia Power continued to add nuclear capacity and brought on line two 910-MW Westinghouse three-loop PWR units near Mineral, Va.: North Anna 1 and North Anna 2 in 1978 and 1980 respectively. North Anna Unit 1 got off to a slow start and the combination of startup problems and a little bad luck kept capacity factors around the 60 percent mark, just average by industry standards. Fortunately, the utility was far enough along the learning when North Anna Unit 2 came on line to get that unit off to a much better start. Almost since day one North Anna Unit 2 has been a good performer with capacity factors generally in the 79 percent to 80 percent range.

Fast forward

Now fast forward to 1994, North Anna Unit 1 finishes a record 518-day run for three-loop Westinghouse PWRs September 9th and, 31 days later, completes an integrated refueling and maintenance outage, setting another record in this country. What is even more astonishing is that this record run came in the wake of a complete steam generator replacement on that unit which also set new records for schedule, safety and radiation exposure. (See OThree new steam generators in 51 daysO elsewhere in this article.)

In 1992, Surry managers were able to complete a 10-year inservice inspection (ISI) and a refueling of Unit 1 in 63 days, 10 days less than the previous refueling outage average. (See Part 2 of this special feature OIntegrated outages increase Surry?s availability.O) In May 1993, Surry was recognized by the American Nuclear Society (ANS) as the plant with the most improvement in capacity factor in a three-year period. The numbers are impressive: for the period 1987-89, Surry Unit 2?s average was 44.7 percent and Unit 1?s was at 50.6 percent, for the period 1990-92, Unit 2 was up to 78.4 percent and Unit 1, 80 percent. Both Surry units improved capacity factors by approximately 30 percent, and by the May 1994 ANS 1991-93 period survey, Surry Unit 1 ranked number one among the nation?s reactors with an 87.05 percent design electrical rating net capacity factor.

At North Anna, capacity factors for both units have hovered around 80 percent since 1990. But in the period 1987-1989, the average was about 70 percent for both units. That is quite a jump for Unit 1?s average capacity factor did dip to about 70 percent for the period 1991-1993, but that can be attributed to the steam generator replacement outage.

Under Nuclear New?s ORankings of utilities with reactors at more than one siteO category, Virginia Power was ranked fifth out of the 15 multi-unit utilities with an average capacity factor of 78.4 percent for all four units, almost 12 percent better than the previous ranking period. For 1994, the company?s four units attained an 86.7 percent average capacity factor, among the highest in the industry. What happened? How on earth did such a dramatic turnaround in performance take place?

Recipe for success

Virginia Power?s recipe for success called for equal amounts of individual initiative, management savvy, engineering discipline, organization, dedication, perseverance, pride, introspection, motivation, and humility. As Jim O?Hanlon, Virginia Power?s senior vice president of nuclear operations, put it, OThings like this don?t happen by accident.O

Obviously, things had to change if Virginia Power was ever going to recover what they had already invested in time, money and effort on the company?s nuclear units. Not unlike other utilities struggling with their nuclear plants, Virginia Power?s organizational structure was fairly traditional, and in retrospect, perhaps not quite up to the Herculean task of operating nuclear reactors.

In a 1993 Nuclear News interview, Bill Stewart, former senior vice president of nuclear operations, said that the old lines of authority and communications between corporate headquarters and the plants had been OdiffusedO at best. Top-heavy, bureaucratic, and unresponsive, Virginia Power?s corporate management structure became increasingly less able to handle the inherent complexities of nuclear operations. As a result, symptoms like forced outages, backlogged repairs and modifications, responsiveness to regulatory requirements and employee apathy began to surface, part of a creeping miasma that, if not stopped, was eventually going to drive the plants into the ground.

Same train, new track

Picture a group of men and women lifting a locomotive off one set of tracks and gently placing it onto another with their bare hands. That may be the best way to describe what the people at Virginia Power did with their nuclear program in the last five years. In 1989, the utility began to restructure the corporate nuclear department to be more responsive to the stations, and began to emphasize personal accountability and self assessment as the nuclear group?s primary guiding philosophies. According to O?Hanlon, who succeeded Stewart upon his retirement in mid-1993, OIn 1989 we changed the organization to become a self-supporting group. For example, all the engineering that our nuclear operations require is overseen by a nuclear engineering vice president. With this arrangement, engineers reporting to the nuclear engineering vice president are located at the corporate offices and the plant sites.O O?Hanlon said this makes them very responsive to the station manager and to the operations side of the organization while maintaining the Oengineering rigorO required to run reactors at peak performance.

O?Hanlon described the change at Virginia Power as more evolutionary than revolutionary. Although staffs have been steadily trimmed at the plants and corporate offices (from approximately 2,480 to 2,300) there was no wholesale replacement of people. Instead, people were moved into positions where they could and would do the most good. As O?Hanlon put it, Oput qualified people in positions where they can perform and give them adequate resources to get the job done.O Group standards have been set and the chain of command now includes three vice presidents, each personally accountable for the following areas: nuclear operations, nuclear engineering and nuclear services.

This accountability is featured at every level of the organization, said O?Hanlon, and is part of a Olevel oneO system under which every task important to the plants is assigned to a specific individual and given a completion date. Progress on these tasks is then reported in group meetings. Thus, anything that must be done is assigned to a specific person who is recognized as the one being responsible by the group. Anything that surfaces that is considered to be important is pursued until it is resolved.

Self assessment

O?Hanlon also emphasized the importance of Virginia Power?s self assessment program and its key role in revitalization of the company?s nuclear program. In a paper delivered at the ANS 1994 Winter Meeting held in Washington, D.C., J. Alan Price, Surry assistant station manager, described the self assessment program in his paper titled, OSelf-Assessment in a Cost-Competitive Environment.O

Every plant, Price said, has programs in place to capture a variety of human, equipment and business performance data. What is needed most, he pointed out, was a means to integrate the data so that performance results can be understood

and communicated.

To accomplish this, Virginia Power uses a single format, annunciator windows, whenever possible because of its distinct advantage in communicating information quickly and simply. Data are displayed in a fashion similar to the annunciator panel in a control room.

Areas being assessed are grouped to display information logically and in a manner familiar to the personnel using it. To become competitive, Virginia Power is focusing the scope of self assessments: the performance annunciator windows program, the critical shutdown-critical parameters procedure and the outage schedule safety assessment computer program.

Through these programs, Price said, the company looks at the past (three-month windows), the present (current plant and systems condition) and the future (outage work activities scheduled against a the backdrop of how these activities will overlap and affect each other).

To assess past performance, the performance annunciator windows program is used and is very effective at providing an evaluation of how a particular area performed compared to expectations. Human performance, important plant systems or programs can be monitored. Routinely generated reports and trending data are used to provide input for the areas being assessed, said Price.

OThe idea is to streamline the assessment process by ensuring that reports that are routinely generated are useful and that the reports are then used for the assessment process.O These assessments are performed quarterly and the items that appear in the windows are color-coded red, yellow and green. The colors assign a priority and help managers keep focused on tasks that truly need the most attention.

Current plant condition

Critical shutdown-critical parameter procedures is the next element of Virginia Power?s self assessment program. OIt is important to know the status of important plant systems,O Price stated.

OManagement must set goals for equipment availability and also expectations for equipment and systems status during different modes of plant operation.O

After defining expectations, explained Price, a grading system like what was previously described can be used to monitor performance.

OMonitoring the status of these components allows for simple displays of plant conditions and reveals where attention may be required.O Significant systems can be grouped together and even aligned with their power supplies, said Price, then depicted graphically. At Surry and North Anna, these assessments are generally performed each day and color-coded to represent performance results.

The assessment of future plant conditions is handled by the outage schedule safety assessment computer program. To keep outages on schedule, a great deal of planning and coordination must occur between maintenance, testing and operations.

Within the annunciator windows format, Virginia Power is able to depict system status and can determine on a schedule-dynamic basis which equipment can be placed out of service without effecting safety or the flow of work. Therefore, changes to the outage schedule can be assessed prior to implementation and periods of increased vulnerability or unacceptable combinations of activities can be easily recognized. Accordingly, the outage plan can be changed to compensate and its effects can be known before anything is changed or any resources have been committed.

OSelf assessment can be a variety of things,O concluded Price, Oit is important that it be useful and not become a self-perpetuating end unto itself, feeding and building on ever-expanding criteria against which performance can be measured.O By aligning existing reports and data sources with the assessment process, Virginia Power has simplified the whole process. OPersonnel charged with implementing programs, allocating resources and responding to self assessment,O said Price, Ocan perhaps better spend time responding to one composite assessment, closing out action items with means designed to Ofix? the identified weakness, not Onurture? the assessment.O

Profit center

Nuclear operations at Virginia Power recently became the Nuclear Business Unit (NBU) and now operates as its own profit center within the company. OWe produce our own financial reports,O said O?Hanlon, Oand contract more than 31 separate services, payroll for instance, from the company.O

How does the NBU compare to Virginia Power?s fossil units? O?Hanlon said the nuclear units have the lowest production costs in the company (operating and maintenance costs plus fuel) and that they?re even lower than Virginia Power?s independent power producers. For 1990, 1991, 1992 and 1993, production costs at North Anna where 14.14 mills, 15.43 mills, 14.18 mills and 14.45 mills per kWh respectively and that was with a steam generator replacement outage. For the three year period 1991-1993, Utility Data Institute (UDI) ranked North Anna number one in production costs and Surry ranked 10th using the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission data. According to a more recent UDI survey, among U.S. plants, North Anna was ranked fourth in dollar production costs per megawatthour ($/MWhr) at 13.71, and Surry tenth, at 15.26 $/MWhr for 1993.

Boiling it down

What it all boils down to, said O?Hanlon, was that now management recognizes that plant operations are of primary importance. OEverything is directed towards supporting the plants, their safe operation, good safe maintenance, good engineering design, etc. You have to make sure adequate resources are at your disposal and that means money and people; if you profess excellence but do not budget enough money to achieve it you will lose credibility among your people very quickly.O It takes a great day-by-day commitment on the part of everyone involved, O?Hanlon explained, and the pride to execute what is required because there is no magic pill to make you great.

The Virginia Power story doesn?t really end here. The management, engineers, technicians and everyone else at the utility know they cannot rest on their laurels if they expect to maintain this level of excellence. The rest of the power industry may not realize this, but the recipe for success in nuclear operations today is nothing short of perfection and Virginia Power knows it. END

Three new steam generators in 51 days