By Brian Schimmoller, Contributing Editor
The windshield wipers on that new car you bought a year ago are leaving that annoying streak right across your line of vision when it rains. No big deal, right? You stop by the auto parts store and pick up a new pair of wiper replacements. Are you sure, however, that those replacement blades will provide the same or comparable performance as the original wipers that came with the new vehicle?
Procurement decisions like this may seem unimportant, but wipers can impact the safe operation of your car. They play a role in protecting your life, those in the car with you, and those in other cars on the road with you.
The importance is just as high for a nuclear plant when it purchases replacement parts. Safety-related nuclear plant equipment MUST operate successfully when called upon to safely shut down a reactor, MUST maintain the reactor in a safe shutdown condition, and MUST be able to prevent harmful public exposure to radiation.
In the United States, the legal and regulatory importance of procurement derives from 10CFR50 Appendix B, which codifies the quality assurance criteria for nuclear power plants. Many of the sections in 10CFR50 Appendix B – from design control to handling, storage and shipping – are applicable to procurement decisions and actions. While regulatory compliance is a critical and consistent driver for effective procurement engineering, there are recent and emerging issues that further reinforce its relevance today:
- Counterfeit parts: Counterfeit parts are making their way to the receiving docks at some nuclear plants. Commodity items such as breakers and relays – which can be produced in large lots by counterfeiters to maximize economic return – are particularly susceptible. Although the operational impacts have been minimal, the potential for counterfeiting highlights the need for diligence in procuring replacement parts.
- Obsolete parts: Not a new issue, but as nuclear plants age and the population of nuclear suppliers declines, the population of obsolete parts keeps growing. Nuclear procurement engineers, in turn, need to provide assurance that replacement parts perform their intended design functions.
- New technology: 3D printing and other additive manufacturing processes introduce a new class of replacement parts that may require a fresh look with respect to procurement practices. And as component suppliers look to modify or replace hardware with digital devices that include software, the functional performance of the part may be the same, but other differences must be addressed, such as software validation or the need for additional RFI/EMI shielding.
- Employee turnover: Your friendly procurement engineer is not getting any younger, which means that transferring knowledge from the veterans to the newcomers is paramount. Incoming engineers will need access to modern training tools that can accelerate their transition.
Procurement engineering is a core nuclear plant discipline. And despite the new drivers, the principles that provide the foundation for effective procurement engineering remain the same:
- Design and qualification establishes the suitability of the design. Design control measures must be in place to control the original design.
- Supplier quality controls play an important role in assuring product quality. Procurement processes must assure that purchased items conform to procurement documents, including source evaluation and selection, objective evidence of quality, inspection at source, and examination of products upon delivery.
- Technical evaluations translate design and quality requirements into procurement requirements that are communicated to the supplier in procurement documents. For example, the licensee is responsible for ensuring that regulatory requirements and the applicable design basis are correctly reflected in specifications, drawings, procedures, and instructions.
- Acceptance answers the questions of whether the licensee received what was ordered and whether the item meets the design requirements. Licensees must establish measures to assure that purchased material, equipment and services conform to the procurement documents.
- Post acceptance and installation controls provide assurance that the item meets design requirements and can perform its intended function. This element encompasses handling, storage, inspections, maintenance, testing, and corrective actions.
Basically, procurement engineers must be familiar with everything from designing, purchasing and handling…to installing, maintaining, and repairing. Plus, they need to be cognizant of challenges posed by counterfeiters, new technology, and regulators. It’s like having someone at home who will research the right parts for your car, make sure they’re not fake, and then check to make sure they work as promised.
Wouldn’t that be nice?