How Suppliers Can Help Deliver the Nuclear Promise

Issue 5 and Volume 121.

By Michael P. McMahon

The Nuclear Energy Institute’s (NEI) “Delivering the Nuclear Promise” initiative was launched in December 2015 with the goal of increasing efficiency across the nuclear industry in order to ensure its long-term viability. With more than a year of evidence, it’s clear the initiative is working. According to a February speech from NEI President Maria Korsnick, the program’s efforts identified $650 million in potential savings that could be realized through new programs and processes in 2016. Additionally, people from across the industry collaborated to produce 46 efficiency bulletins which outline efficiency improvements across all aspects of nuclear plant operations. Korsnick said that 95 percent of those recommendations are being implemented across the industry.

As encouraging as the program has been, there is still significant work left to do. Engaging suppliers will be crucial to the initiative’s ultimate success. Last June, as part of an effort to reach out, industry leaders met with a group of suppliers to provide more information about how the initiative works. While it was an important gesture, suppliers cannot wait for nuclear utilities to engage them. A proactive approach to helping to deliver the nuclear promise is needed. Here are some initiatives that industry suppliers can take.

Share Improvement Opportunity Ideas

NEI has set-up a mechanism for suppliers to participate in the nuclear promise initiative by submitting improvement opportunity ideas. This is the most obvious way for suppliers to help and they should take advantage of it early and often. That’s because they are in a unique position to make recommendations. Suppliers often work at multiple sites and with multiple utility companies from across the industry. Many suppliers have been in the industry for decades and have seen what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to efficiently managing projects.

Suppliers must leverage their experiences and identify new ways to bring value to nuclear plant operations by passing on what they have learned and making sure best practices are incorporated into all of the projects they work on. This, accompanied with a detailed, well-executed change management plan is critical to success.

Watts Bar Nuclear Plant is on 1,700 acres on the northern end of the Chickamauga Reservoir near Spring City, in East Tennessee. Each unit produces about 1,150 megawatts of electricity-enough to service 650,000 homes-without creating any carbon emissions.

Be a Partner, Not a Participant

It’s one thing to share improvement opportunities ideas, but if those ideas are to be incorporated effectively, there must be an increase in collaboration between both utilities and suppliers. They must work together at the site and fleet levels to understand the unique context of the challenges utilities face and to identify opportunities for efficiencies savings, and innovations throughout the value chain. While suppliers and utilities always work together to complete projects, the level of collaboration can vary.

Suppliers are not always brought in at the earliest levels of project planning, making it difficult to ensure that projects are executed efficiently. Without a conversation before work begins, it is more difficult to accurately define project scope. This can leave both sides in a poor position if projects go over budget or past schedule. Suppliers need a seat at the table as a true partner in order to deliver the most efficiency possible. As the nuclear promise initiative continues to evolve, supplier and utility collaboration will be an essential part of its success.

Standardizing Training & Qualifications

Effective worker training is a key contributing factor to the efficiency and reliability that nuclear plants currently enjoy. Workers are the ones on the ground that make sure tasks are executed safely and properly. Unfortunately, there is currently no standardized training certificate for workers in the nuclear industry. This means that workers often receive duplicative training when working for new plants or utilities. When a contract worker is a proven commodity — one that has worked on numerous projects and passed previous training programs — requiring them take an additional training course simply because they are working at a new plant is inefficient. While there should be some plant-specific orientation programs, the standardization of general practices and procedures across the industry would make for a better training experience for workers and utility operators. Steps are currently in place to address this through common “Hard Hat Ready” courses, yet work still needs to be done in terms of developing and recognizing standardized qualifications in welding, rigging, torqueing, and other tasks.

Suppliers must take an active role with their utilities to identify these redundancies and collectively work with industry resource groups to develop and implement standardized task evaluations that can be recognized from site to site.

Engage with Other Suppliers

The nuclear promise initiative encourages utilities to work collaboratively to solve problems. It also encourages suppliers to participate by sharing ideas. But there is one notable gap in this system. It does not address the need for suppliers to collaborate with other suppliers. On any given nuclear project multiple suppliers are involved upstream and downstream. During outages the number of staff from outside vendors can double or even surpass the number of permanent on-site staff. There is natural interaction between vendors during the course of projects, but much like utilities, there needs to be more conversation that takes place outside of the vacuum of specific projects.

Groups like the Nuclear Suppliers Association are one way for suppliers to connect and share ideas, but they also must be conversing in more informal ways and more frequently; particularly at the site level. While suppliers are often competing against each other, they must find ways to collaborate to make each utility successful and maintain the viability of nuclear power. Suppliers do not need to share proprietary processes, but they can find ways to work more efficiently together and improve project coordination. Utilities can become much more efficient if suppliers show a willingness and ability to collaborate to solve problems.

A Continued Commitment to Safety Improvement

Safety cannot be taken for granted, especially in the midst of significant change. While the nuclear industry as a whole has a tremendous track record for safety performance, suppliers must be daring enough, along with their utility counterparts, to imagine a future with zero injuries. Such a drastic change won’t happen by executive mandate. It’ll happen when workers at every level believe it’s possible and are actively engaged in the process.

Suppliers and utilities must have one voice for safety that is modeled by leadership and supervision and reinforced through mutual accountability. This is the kind of bold thinking of years past that challenged the status-quo and helped us achieve unparalleled results. It’s time to challenge the status-quo again, to think beyond an incident rate and get to zero.

Working Together In an Uncertain Future

An increasing shift toward lowering carbon emissions in power generation, the regulatory policies of a new administration, and advances in nuclear reactors and other types of generation will play a role in the industry’s ability to grow and prosper. Some of these factors are difficult or impossible to control.

That’s why the nuclear promise initiative was focused on what the industry can control: driving down costs and improving efficiency. Suppliers have a choice to make.

They can choose to be another outside factor that is difficult to control, or they can choose to be part of the solution. Collaboration between suppliers and utilities will be necessary to put the industry in the best possible position to succeed.

Michael McMahon is President of Day & Zimmermann’s Engineering, Construction and Maintenance Group, a provider of total plant lifecycle solutions for the power, process, and industrial markets.