Coal, Nuclear

Stand a Vigilant Watch

Issue 9 and Volume 103.

A Recent Spate of Power Plant Accidents and Explosions-Some with Fatal Consequences-Has reinforced the criticality of safe work practices and emergency response plans. Implementation of effective training techniques, continually updated and reinforced, is a must, not only to safeguard human life, but to safeguard multimillion dollar investments in plant equipment and avoid costly outlays for replacement power.

Since February, there have been at least six major power plant accidents around the country, killing eight and injuring scores: Ford Motor Co.’s Rouge complex (February 1), Kansas City Power & Light’s Hawthorn Unit 5 (February 17), Tampa Electric’s Gannon Station (April 8), PG&E’s Hunters Point Unit 3 (July 12), Kansas City Board of Public Utilities’ Nearman plant (July 21) and Georgia Power’s Plant McDonough Unit 2 (August 14). Although complete investigation results are not yet available, improper operating and maintenance practices are suspected in at least two of the accidents. The purpose of these investigations is not to place blame, but to identify the weak links in the chain, be they personnel-related, equipment-related or some combination of both.

As sobering as these accidents are, the electric utility industry remains relatively safe, at least compared to many other industrial occupations. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reported 34 fatalities in 1997 for the “Electric Services” industry. The fraction of total U.S. work-related fatalities that occurred in the utilities industries is about the same as the fraction of total U.S. employment accounted for by the utilities industries. Conversely, agriculture, forestry, construction, fishing and mining accounted for a much higher percentage of fatalities in relation to their employment.

Still, this is no time to be resting on statistical laurels. With plants rapidly changing hands, and with many new plants coming on-line over the next few years, the experience level of plant operators can be expected to fall. Addressing this reality requires a constant commitment to knowledge acquisition, training and preparedness.

Much can be learned from the nuclear side of the industry, according to Bill Biach, president of BIA, who recently addressed a nuclear owners group meeting on the importance of training and documentation. Because safety awareness is much more visible in nuclear plants, successful strategies there should be studied and reapplied throughout the power industry. Simulators and requalification, which have been used in the nuclear industry and before that in the nuclear Navy as effective tools for keeping preparedness levels high during emergencies, should garner more use outside the nuclear arena.

Obviously, proper system operation and maintenance is the first line of defense in preventing plant accidents such as boiler explosions. If an accident does occur, however, the operator should immediately know what to do-a demonstration of effective training. If the operator is unavailable or incapacitated by the accident, others should immediately know what to do-a demonstration of effective emergency response. Information is critical; preparedness involves both having the information and learning how to use the information.

As engineers, it is sometimes easy to mistake the forest for the trees when analyzing plant availability and performance. Tweaking the plant to raise net efficiency by 0.1 percentage points-while laudable-will save only a few hundred thousand dollars in the course of a year. Avoiding an accident that shuts a plant down for a week or two during the summer peak pricing periods can save millions of dollars in replacement power costs, not to mention the avoided insurance deductibles for potential fatalities, injuries and equipment damage.

In the aftermath of accidents, the common lament is that it took such an incident to compel individuals or companies or industries to change their ways. As entropy drives the universe toward disorder, human nature drives individuals toward complacency. To maintain, and improve, current safety levels, we must fight this urge. p