Combined Cycle, Nuclear

Nuclear Plant Automates Calls for Help

Issue 6 and Volume 6.

By Bruce Duff, CEO, Arcos Inc.

“The first thing we heard was the rumbling and then we felt the shaking, and then heard and felt the shaking continue,” said Jason Russell, a control room supervisor on duty at Dominion’s North Anna Power Station in central Virginia on August 23, 2011, the day a 5.8-magnitude earthquake struck.

When it comes to power plant operation, callout and emergency notification are rarely thought of until needed. It’s not surprising; plants have well-worn processes in place for handling these situations. But inefficiency and, in some cases, risk is at the core.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers defines a callout as an order to report for emergency or special work at an unusual time or place.

Most plant managers would argue against investing in new technology for callout or emergency notification because, on the surface, the processes work. Some savvy power plant operators have begun improving the efficiency and reliability of callouts, though. By studying what’s at the core of callouts and emergency notifications, power plant owners such as Dominion, Duke Energy and Salt River Project are finding a more efficient, reliable way to get workers when and where needed.

In the case of Dominion’s North Anna Power Station, immediately after the August 2011 earthquake, the plant’s operators quickly declared an alert, the second lowest of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s emergency categories. They then ensured a safe shutdown.

Dominion's North Anna nuclear power plant used ARCOS' callout system after the 2011 earthquake.
Dominion’s North Anna nuclear power plant used ARCOS’ callout system after the 2011 earthquake. Photo courtesy: Dominion

“Since September 2010, we had had a new, fully automated emergency notification system in place that could alert up to 750 of our people about an emergency at the North Anna site,” said Clarence L. Gum, manager of Nuclear Fleet Emergency Preparedness for Dominion Resources Services Inc.

According to Dominion, the technology in place since 2010 is a web-based software system that the North Anna Power Station’s security control center can activate by PC, smartphone or tablet. Dominion’s other nuclear stations in Connecticut, Virginia, and Wisconsin, also use the automated system. With the push of a button, the system activates pagers, phones and describes what type of emergency is happening and where employees should respond. Before 2010, an operator in Dominion’s security center would have to call a service to launch an emergency notification via pager to all required employees. When the service representative received the call, the name of Dominion’s operator had to match a database of approved workers.

Eliminating the Potential for Error

“We realized that if we brought a newly hired operator on duty and he wasn’t yet in the database, then extra minutes might go by before his identify was verified by the service representative,” added Gum. “That wasn’t acceptable, especially because every minute counts in an emergency.”

Dominion measures the effectiveness of its automated emergency notification system with Augmentation Capability Assessments (i.e., ACA drills). The plant periodically conducts these drills to determine the effectiveness of the automated notification system, and the timely response of Dominion’s Emergency Response Organization.

Any plant, regardless of fuel source (i.e., gas, oil or nuclear), can automate callout and emergency notification. But one factor to take into consideration is the number of employees required to operate and maintain the plant. For example, a 30-person combined cycle plant generating 150 MW is going to have different emergent callout demands than Crystal River or NGS, which respectively employ more than 200 people.

Building a Case for Automation

The best approach to building a business case for callout automation is with data. For example, measure the duration of your existing callout process and determine existing bargaining unit callout requirements to determine the variance if any.

Automation makes the callout process quicker, allowing supervisors to meet other plant needs while consistently managing the process. Along with this, the duration of callouts also becomes more predictable. For instance, initiating a callout at the Crystal River Energy Complex now happens in three to five minutes. If your site’s callout process averages 30 minutes, automating your process may give your supervisors back as many as 27 minutes per callout to focus on other important work.

Although a rarity, a lengthy callout process could potentially force a unit shutdown and trigger the startup of a more costly unit to meet customer demand. Preventing these types of forced “derates” are as important as searching for efficiencies. Improving callout and emergency notification processes are critical to ensuring plant operations return to safe, normal operating conditions.

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