Race against time
B&W scrambles to train enough nuclear operators before 2021 launch of SMR .
Thomas Graham stands before a giant control system, its gauges and lights flickering with mock nuclear emergencies. If this were a real emergency, Graham would follow a precisely outlined series of steps.
His only emergency now is training enough licensed nuclear operators in time to support the launch of a small modular reactor by Babcock & Wilcox Nuclear Operations Group in Lynchburg, part of Charlotte, N.C.-based The Babcock & Wilcox Co.
Graham is manager of the integrated design process and human factors program at B&W’s Lynchburg operations. He manages a simulated control room inside the company’s engineering offices — a mockup used to train nuclear operators and get them licensed in time to support the product’s expected commercial deployment in 2021.
“We want to have a high state of readiness, so we’re already training people to get certified. Having qualified operators is one of the long poles in the tent for regulatory approval,” Graham says, a reference to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
The reason for the early start: Graham says it takes at least two years for an aspiring operator to pass the NRC’s rigorous licensing tests. Some B&W engineers are undergoing training now, and more are expected to be added during the next year.
Inside the simulation center, a huge control panel juts out into the middle of the room. A series of flat-screen computer monitors on the far wall shows a schematic of Babcock’s simulated two-unit nuclear reactor, known as mPower.
Together, the system enables operators to keep a constant eye out for potential malfunction or other trouble spots.
The control system is powered by two batteries, each one the size of a small room. Access to the simulation center is digitally controlled, a cyber-security precaution, Graham says. Anyone entering the facility must be either a licensed operator or accompanied by someone who is.
Once in operation, the real control rooms will be manned in three eight-hour shifts. Each shift will include three operators on duty: two that monitor the system and a third to ensure that detailed, step-by-step protocol is followed for recording each incident, even minor anomalies and blips.
Part of the training: at any time, each computer screen will simulate two simultaneous but unrelated emergencies, or a total of four separate incidents. It’s a way of testing each operator’s skill and familiarity with NRC regulations.
Graham isn’t exactly sure how many licensed operators will be needed, but he says B&W wants to be prepared. Even after getting licensed, operators will undergo training to polish their skills, similar to how airline pilots complete periodic flight testing.
One week in every six will be devoted to new testing and training, Graham says. “There’s a lot of practice that goes into maintaining their skill level.”