Summer Sadness

In 2009, I had the privilege of visiting the V.C. Summer Units 2/3 nuclear construction site while it was mostly dirt being moved around. My tour guide – a senior manager from the new plant development team – took me to where one of the containment buildings would stand, unrolled a site map on the hood of his pickup truck, and pointed out where the various main structures would sit when completed. It was a heady moment, and it was impossible to miss the pride in his voice.

I shared his excitement, and enjoyed tracking progress at Summer over the next few years. To myself and other engineers in the power industry, time-lapse videos showing the placement of concrete and the installation of large plant modules were technological eye candy.

The demise of the Summer project, therefore, has been particularly painful to watch. Beyond the loss of thousands of jobs, a large tax base, and a reliable generating asset, there is a psychological impact that will shape perceptions and decisions on nuclear for years to come.

Sadly, tracking progress at Summer has shifted from eye candy to estate sale. Will Dominion’s offer to purchase SCANA ultimately go through? Will Santee Cooper survive as a public utility in South Carolina or will it be sold, dissolved, disaggregated by the state? Will any of the equipment or components at the Summer site be salvaged for use elsewhere? Will Summer’s sister plant under construction in Georgia, Vogtle 3/4, be able to avoid Summer’s fate?

The blame game is already in process, and the legal cases will likely circle through the courts for years. For a failed $10+ billion project, there is obviously a lot of fault that needs to find a resting spot.

I claim no inside knowledge, but it occurred to me that some of the bedrock operating principles associated with the nuclear power industry appear to have been absent, or at least under-emphasized, in the Summer project.

In 2012, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) published Traits of a Healthy Nuclear Safety Culture (INPO 12-012) to reinforce the industry’s commitment to safety as the overriding priority. The traits defined in this document reflect the “core values and behaviors resulting from a collective commitment by leaders and individuals to emphasize safety over competing goals to ensure protection of people and the environment.”

INPO 12-012 lists 10 traits and their associated attributes. Some, such as Effective Safety Communication and Leadership Safety Values and Actions, are clearly specific to safety. Most of the rest, though, are applicable to new plant development, at least in my humble opinion. I’ll touch on a few.

Questioning Attitude: “Individuals avoid complacency and continuously challenge existing conditions and activities in order to identify discrepancies that might result in error or inappropriate action.” Regardless of who you prefer to assign blame to – the owners, the vendors, the contractors – there were undoubtedly discrepancies between expectations and reality. These discrepancies led to “inappropriate actions,” or at least a lack of appropriate actions, and created a culture where complacency set in.

“For a failed $10+ billion project, there is obviously a lot of fault that needs to find a resting spot.”

Problem Identification and Resolution: “Issues potentially impacting safety are promptly identified, fully evaluated, and promptly addressed and corrected commensurate with their significance.” Replace “safety” in that sentence with “schedule,” “budget,” or “project completion” and it is equally applicable to new plant development. I am not saying that issues were never identified along the way at Summer. For example, the difficulties associated with implementing a new modular construction approach within the tight quality standards of the nuclear power industry were recognized relatively early on. However, the combined effects of multiple problems were neither sufficiently recognized not sufficiently addressed.

Environment for Raising Concerns: “A safety-conscious work environment is maintained where personnel feel free to raise safety concerns without fear of retaliation, intimidation, harassment, or discrimination.” Remove the references to safety and you have a desirable principle for effective project management. I’m not claiming there was any sort of explicit or implied pressure applied to those who worked on the Summer project to keep quiet about issues. I do wonder, however, whether a more open environment may have led to an earlier assessment of rising project risks.

During the early days of the Vogtle and Summer projects, I heard multiple people say that the industry had to bring them online both on schedule and on budget to demonstrate that the cost overruns of the construction projects in the 1980s and 1990s were behind us. Well, let’s face it. We definitely failed on that front.

Vogtle still has a chance to save the industry some face. Adopting a few healthy traits may be part of the equation.

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