E07 Safety and Training in the Nuclear Industry at the Electric Power Research Institute


e07 Safety and Training in the Nuclear Industry at the Electric Power Research Institute

Gary Boles and Elizabeth Benavides, Electric Power Research Institute with Zack Parnell, ITI

MANDY HENRY: Hey guys, welcome to the LITES Podcast. It’s Leadership in Industrial Technology, Education and Safety where we talk to thought-leaders in construction and heavy industries in this exciting time of innovation. I’m Mandy Henry, Communities Manager at ITI and in this episode, we spoke with Gary Boles and Elizabeth Benavides of the Electric Power Research Institute to discuss safety in the nuclear industry and how EPRI is implementing training programs. Thanks for tuning in.

ZACK PARNELL: Can you share your name and who you're currently with?

GARY BOLES: Well, I'm Gary Boles and I'm a Principal Technical Leader for the Electric Power Research Institute. Most people know us as EPRI.

PARNELL: Great. Thank you. And what is EPRI. Can you give us a good overview?

BOLES: Well, EPRI is, as I stated before, the Electric Power Research Institute, we conduct research development and demonstration activities for the benefit of the public in the United States and internationally. I want to emphasize that we are an international company, we’re independent or non-profit. We exist for the public interest for electricity generation, transmission, distribution, and utilization. If it involves electricity, were involved in it. It includes any of the aspects that go along with that; That would be safety, environmental considerations, efficiency, reliability, etc.

PARNELL: Fantastic. Could you give us some ideas of some recent research?

BOLES: Well, some of the things I'm involved in personally is I do research and development to help a nuclear power plants improve equipment reliability through figuring out what maintenance best practices are, trying to improve the knowledge transfer equipment information, and maintenance practices between utilities. In some cases, we develop conceptual products which might improve equipment and plant performance. Improve safety, reliability or lower costs. We don't manufacture anything. We might develop a conceptual product that ends up going to someone else to manufacture. In that way we sometimes refer to ourselves as technology accelerators.

PARNELL: What is your title with the Hoisting and Rigging Crane User Group, and what is that group about?

BOLES: I'm the project manager for that group. We have a steering committee and we actually have a chairman that’s a utility member, but the Hoisting and Rigging Crane Users Group, that's a group that meets formally once a year and it consists of utility members and service providers – by service providers, I mean those companies that provide craft resources to power plants. It's people like BHI, Day Zimmerman, and companies like that. There are manufacturers, like crane manufacturers, who manufacture cranes or do modifications on cranes. Vendors who either manufacturer or only sell hoisting and rigging hardware – that can be anything from spreader beams to shackles to slings to whatever. Then there are other service providers like ITI who do training for people or groups that do certification of riggers or crane operators or so on. Basically, that user's group is an open group. It's open to more than EPRI members.

We meet once a year formally. We communicate all year long, especially between the utilities, because questions come up. When one utility is struggling in a particular area, they send questions to me that I will send out to other members to find out how they are doing things. So, we're a continuous forum for the exchange of information on lifting, rigging cranes, etc. When we meet once a year, we basically meet with the intent of sharing new technology or new learnings from manufacturers, vendors, utilities, some sales. Then, most of the second day is usually devoted to utilities, sharing operating experience by want to share how they ran into a problem and how they fixed it or how they had a challenge and how they were able to use some innovative idea or technique to solve that problem.

You know, a big part of EPRI is the collaborative model that we share information between members and that's particularly important in the nuclear power industry because yes, the sale of nuclear power, of electrical energy may be relatively competitive. The safe operation of nuclear power plants is not at all competitive. No one wants anyone to have an event at a nuclear power plant because it affects all of us. We all have to respond to that and that's very important for us.

PARNELL: Sure. Thank you. Speaking of events, there was a very large hoisting and rigging event in the past five years, I believe at a plant in Arkansas. I'm sure the hoisting, rigging and crane user group delved into that quite a bit and under and tried to understand what happened. Has that event created changes that you have all taken forward?

BOLES: Absolutely. That event really was something that affected all of us. For one reason, because someone lost their life in that event and there were people hurt. I actually had a friend that was there and he's actually a generator expert and he just happened to be watching as that event happened. Of course, they were trying to lift the starter of a main generator, which is a huge piece of equipment. He was close to it when it happened. He was fortunate enough to be near a very large eye-beam that he hid behind. I heard about it almost immediately from this friend of mine, but the industry really took that to heart.

That's one of the things you're taught when you grow up in the nuclear power industry is you never want to have the attitude that this couldn't happen to me. Chances are it can happen to you. There have been a lot of learnings that have come out of that pant. There's been a lot of increased rigor in developing lift plans and the review of those lift plans as a result of that event.

PARNELL: Fantastic. Thank you for elaborating on that. Let's talk about risk. I understand the Hoisting and Rigging Crane User Group and your role currently focuses on crane and rigging and load handling activities where there is a lot of risk obviously. Again, with your EPRI hat on looking at all utilities, coal plants, nuclear, etc., how do crane and rigging activities rank against other risk areas for severity and probability of events?

BOLES: On scale of 1 to 10, it's maybe a 4 or 5. And the reason I say that is when the plants are operating, which you've got to remember with a nuclear power plant, the expectation is you operate what we call breaker-to-breaker. In other words, from the time you close the breaker after a refueling outage until it's time to refill again, which is anywhere from one to two years, depending on the design of your plant, the expectation is that you will not shut down.

The large hoisting and rigging that goes on is when you're in an outage, so you're lifting the reactor vessel head so you can refuel and you're lifting all the paraphernalia that's above it – control rods, dry housings, steam dryers, BWR, or whatever they are – you're lifting those, but the reactors shut down at the time. Now the risk is, and the severity is, when you're lifting some of those things, you're lifting them over the reactor core. You don't want to drop anything that damages the reactor core and there are some specific NRC regulations that utilities have to follow to ensure that for one, they keep the probability of an accident low and they keep the severity of an accident, if it were to occur, as low as possible. The other place that you're lifting something large is typically on the turbine floor. The turbine itself is typically not safety related. It is not needed to shut down the reactor, but it's maybe to generate power. It's very important and those components are very large.

PARNELL: Great. Thank you. What other categories of events rank high at nuclear power stations and then maybe in general? So, are there at heights risks or are there confined space risks? What were the other event types?

BOLES: Well, confined space risks do exist. They're a hazard to personnel. I'm actually was involved in a confined space event many years ago where a co-worker of mine passed out in a confined space and myself and another guy rescued him out of that area. We were all together doing a walk down. He went somewhere that we didn't recognize it as a confined space, but we didn't all go in there. So, when he passed out, we recognized what was going on. Actually, my other coworker recognized what was happening and started barking orders to me, which I followed him into. Fortunately, we were able to rescue that gentlemen. That gentleman has now run a marathon on every continent in the world. I think he survived. But there are some risks of confined space. I'm not sure there really any higher than any other industry.

Other risks that nuclear power plants have to deal with are really risks of the failure of some piece of equipment that might be necessary to shut down the reactor. We very much control almost all those. Some of the events that we really have to plan for, and be ready for, are what we call loss of off-site power events. These are events where maybe there's a grid disturbance. It's external to the plant, maybe it’s a storm. A storm knocks out the power to the plant or maybe the power that we're sending out of the plant. If there's no power last to send the power out, the plant has to shut down. But some of those redundant power supplies also might be needed to provide power to safe shutdown equipment. We have usually diesel generators in place to provide power for them. But what if they fail? That's not a very good event to deal with. That's why we have redundant diesel generators and we worry about loss of off-site power events a lot.  

PARNELL: Excellent. I recently read the Department of Energy has a US Energy and Employment Report and it goes over the employment numbers, about 3.6 million people that work in power generation, transmission distribution storage in the US. It was a pretty sizable amount of people actually, when you compare it to, I think there's about 150 million people in the overall workforce. So, that supports a lot of households and families. What skill sets do utilities really need today and in the future? What do you know about how has the skilled labor shortage affected utilities?

BOLES: The skill set and a power plant, whether nuclear or other are varied. So, they're everything from what I would describe as skilled labor – these are electricians, mechanics, pipe fitters, boilermakers, machinists, instrument and control mechanics that are highly skilled labor that are there to basically maintain the equipment in the right way. Of course, there is engineering support that goes along with that just for day to day support of the plant, but also to maintain the design or make design changes to the plant. Then there's another set of, kind of a cross between the skilled worker and the engineer that are the operators of the plant. We've got people that are out in the plant actually operating equipment, opening and closing valves, things like that to the people in the control room that are monitoring the plant, making sure it's operating like it's supposed to. Then their supervisors and management, which are all highly trained people that have been through several years of trying to get there. A lot of the operations people especially have come out of the US Navy because of their nuclear program.

Then you have some live or that you might say, it's kind of unskilled labor. It's labors and folks like that that keep the plant clean and help the skilled labor. So really in a plant, the top of people runs the gamut from relatively unskilled labor to engineers and post graduate engineers of all kinds. I'm mechanical. There was never a loss of for work for a mechanical engineer in a nuclear power plant. Then you've got the nukes that often help us take care of the reactor itself and the fuel. Obviously, the electrical engineers that help us make sure everything is getting the power it needs and make sure we're generating power like we need to. The engineers run from what I would call field engineers that are really good around the equipment to design engineers that are, that are more in the office, trying to make sure that the design basis is maintained.

We look at that and really the industry has had some success with mitigating the aging workforce. That doesn't mean that there are still some problems, but the workforce is constantly evolving. When I go to a plant or I go to a meeting with people from the plants, it used to be that there was a lot of gray hair or in my case no hair, in the room. Not so much anymore. There's a lot of young people there that are really hungry for the experience that some of the older guys have. A what we're hungry for is to know how to use the technology like they do. Technology for me sometimes is a challenge. For the young people, it is a tool and they use it very well.

So, now the challenge may be now that we've brought people into the entry level positions and now it's time to move them on up into the more highly skilled positions and specialties. Positions in things like power engineering, nuclear engineering and cyber security.

PARNELL: Sure. Awesome.


HENRY: After talking with Gary, we spoke with Elizabeth Benavides, Training Manager EPRI about their STE program and other training solutions that EPRI provides.


ZACK PARNELL: Let's get started. Who are you and can you describe your background?

ELIZABETH BENAVIDES: Absolutely. My name is Elizabeth McAndrew Benevides and I am the Training Manager for the Electric Power Research Institute. I started my career almost 2 decades ago when I graduated from Purdue University with a degree in Nuclear Engineering. For the first few years I went to work as an engineer at a nuclear power plant called Calvert Cliffs, which is in Maryland, and rotated my way through a number of technical positions in that organization including operations, quality assurance, and finally new nuclear construction at that utility. During that time period, I finished my Master's in Education because I realized really what my passion was in the nuclear power industry: to help people become even better nuclear workers. The training department was going to be a great career path. In order to be a great training person, you have to be technically knowledgeable as well. So, I enjoyed my rotations through operations and engineering and quality assurance. They get a well-rounded view of all the very integral and different aspects of how to safely run an efficient nuclear power plant.

After I left Constellation, I went to work at the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington DC. They are the policy organization for the commercial nuclear energy sector. What I did there was primarily focused on workforce policy for the energy sector, specifically nuclear, and had the opportunity to work on a number of really cool projects including: The Green Energy Efforts to ensure that nuclear jobs are part of that official definition for the United States. I also was able to work on a number of efficiency activities called Delivering the Nuclear Promise, and the Nuclear Uniform Curriculum Program where we leverage resources across the country to ensure that education training and industry qualification programs all aligned so that people wouldn't have to redo work in order to be able to become qualified to work in the nuclear industry.

That led me to here at EPRI. I've been here for about a year. At EPRI, they brought me in to set up a training program to assist with the entire Electric Power Research Institute. So, I'm not nuclear focused anymore, I'm energy focused. What we are trying to do is to help ensure that all of our great researchers here at EPRI have the ability to use trading as a form of technology transfer so that way more people can understand the best and brightest ways to use different technologies to make energy cheaper, safer, and more reliable.

PARNELL: Excellent. So many questions. What did you learn at Constellation, or how could you summarize how to safely operate a power plant and the skills required specifically for nuclear power, but then generally in power generation?

BENAVIDES: Well, sure. So, I think if I was to answer that question just as a newbie engineer at the power plant, one of my big observations right off the bat was that my education at Purdue was awesome. It was a ranked top 10 engineering program in the United States at the time and still is, but it was a lot of theory. When I got to the power plant, it is this huge massive industrial facility with all of these components and there's not one type of valve, not one type of steam generator, or one type of heat exchanger. It was very cool when I finally got to get into the plants day in, day out, and actually get to see in practice really what the theory is and how it works. So, I would probably say here what I learned at Constellation was that everything that you've ever dreamed about in college, when you get to see it real life, it is awe-inspiring.

PARNELL: Let's paint a quick picture. If you had, as an engineer at Purdue, access to several VR experiences that took you through a nuclear power plant before you got there, what would you desire to learn? Like how would you build that experience that could have prepared you better to enter that job site?

BENAVIDES: I think what I would provide is that I was lucky. When I was going to college, Purdue still has, but there were definitely more opportunities back, 20 years ago, for co-ops and internships. Because I was US citizen, I was able to do that hands-on work. But, my co-ops and internships were in corporate offices and I was working on nuclear core design and nuclear physics problems with large computer programs. I think if I would have the ability here to have virtual reality or 3D models or something else that gave more of the hands-on of what would feel like or look like to be in the plant, I would have had more of the component and systems background when I graduated. At Purdue, and a lot of different engineering institutions in the United States, they've got great labs and great opportunities for you to do hands-on activities, but they're sized for a school. They’re sized for a university. It doesn't really play out until you get to be at one of these very large industrial facilities to really see the immenseness of how all these things interact with one another and I think that VR would help with that. Virtual reality or augmented reality or mixed reality, depending on the modality, would help to give that perspective and so that you could see the bigger picture before you graduate, that whatever it is that you worked on for your senior design project or you did during your co-op is just one small drop in the bucket of what needed to make that whole facility run.

PARNELL: Fantastic. Thank you. Let's jump into EPRI a little bit and the STE program. Could you give us an overview of the STE program? Including figures, delivery methods, and what your vision is for that program over the next five years, let's say.

BENAVIDES: Sure. The Standardized Task Evaluation Program is actually a program that the industry has designed and developed and has been utilizing through EPRI for almost 2 decades now. It is a program that follows a systematic approach to training, which helps us make sure here that we analyze, design, develop, implement, and evaluate energy workers in a way to ensure that they're qualified to do the skills and tasks that they are designed and asked to do. The STE Program, as we call it, Standardized Task Evaluation Program, is designed to be the evaluation piece to ensure that portable workers mainly, outage workers or craft transfer from site to site, that we have one way to ensure that they have the right knowledge and skills to do certain tasks that they are assigned when they come to our site, to a utility.

The concept here is that there's a lot of great ways to get trained and educated and to get the competencies required to work in the energy industry. All of the utilities in the United States, provide partners or partners that have preferred methodologies if coming out of the military, if it's going through an apprenticeship program at the community college or university, lots of great ways to get these competencies. But there wasn't one mechanism before to know whether or not the people paid attention in class and if they actually had the knowledge or skill.

So, the Standardized Test Evaluation Program is a way for the industry to come together and identify specific tasks, and there are about 100 of them that are currently identified, and then develop a knowledge exam and a performance evaluation that individuals are given to ensure that individual has that knowledge and skill. What happens is that EPRI has a database that all of the members can get access to and they can check to see if that individual has the right ability, so that way they can go to work at their site and be trustworthy to do work on millions of dollars’ worth of equipment.

PARNELL: Fantastic overview. Would you mind describing the most popular STE exams for us and maybe just a good overview of the categories?

BENAVIDES: Absolutely. So, the categories for Standardized Task Evaluation tests are pretty broad. They focus on very specific tasks, but we're mainly focused out of mechanical and electrical technician areas. So, INC skills, electrical skills, and mechanical skills. Recently, we've expanded to include radiation protection and we are currently focused on expanding here in 2018 and 2019 into chemistry and engineering.

The most popular STEs generally tend to focus around rigging and lifting, which are very common tasks that occur at utilities and are very much used all the facilities. Those two tend to be the most popular because people need to know how to lift and rig, no matter if they're working nuclear or nonnuclear as electrician or a mechanic. That's a very broad skillset.

PARNELL: Would you mind describing a general exam and skill evaluation? Are they typically like 30 or 60-minute exercises or what's the scope of it?

BENAVIDES: Absolutely. So, an STE is designed to be something just to double check that the person already had the behavior or skill. They've already done training, likely already worked in that area for multiple years and this is just a way for the energy sector to know that they actually have the skill set. It's the same level of rigor that we expect in our industry. The exam itself is a computer-based test where they will sit down at one of the members who are part of this program's testing facility. They will be logged in by a proctor to make sure that they have the credentials and they know who the person is, and they'll sit there for about half an hour to 60 minutes depending on the test. Taking an individualized exam from the database of questions I have been created by the industry for that skill.

Once they have passed the knowledge exam with an 80 percent or above, they were then capable of going to take the performance evaluation. The performance evaluation is conducted by one of the organizations that is a member of the STE program, and there is a very rigorous outline of what needs to be accomplished. Basically, you’ve proved that you have the skill that is associated with that task. So, if it's rigging, you're going to rig something. Once the qualified evaluator sees that that person has that skillset, they sign a couple forms, they're sent into EPRI, and the master database is updated for the individual.

PARNELL: It sounds like the STEs that you have are fairly generalized skillsets that you're really focusing in on just confirming their ability to perform the task. So, it's a great point, we don't want to reinvent the wheel. As you're looking at the energy ecosystem specifically, which degrees and craft roles would you recommend, for instance, for teenagers to get into today if they're interested in working in the energy sector over the next 30 years?

BENAVIDES: So, my advice for today's teenagers is to be aware of the fact that the jobs of tomorrow are not going to resemble the jobs of today. You need to be flexible at the job transform. Therefore, you should look into painting an education or the skills that align to the energy industry’s competency model for entry level workers. Those competencies are true for all energy and electricity careers, and there are many paths to obtaining those knowledge and skills. You can go to the military, go through an apprenticeship program at a labor organization, you can go to a community college or university. If you participate in one of those post K-12 programs that have a portable credential, you can then find employment in a variety of energy fields. Once you have employment, that's when you can start figuring out what you really like and what you want to do and specialize in something and work on advanced credentials. Whether or not they'd be skills based or education based.

Examples like becoming an electrician, can go across many industries as well as all the different energy sector positions or becoming an engineer and an accredited university will allow you to be qualified for a lot of our entry level positions. Your specialty shouldn't come into play until you've had some time to kind of feel out the industry. You don't know what you're going to want to do in 30 years and so what you want to do is have the right knowledge and skills in the background so that way you are capable of starting anywhere but ending up where you want to go.

PARNELL: Thanks Elizabeth. I’m excited for you and your career and I look forward to staying connected as we both keep working at it. I appreciate it.

BENAVIDES: Thanks Zack. Have a great day.


HENRY: Thanks for tuning into LITES. It's leadership and industrial technology education and safety. See more at If you enjoyed the show, please remember to rate, review and subscribe. LITES is a production of Industrial Training International. Our guests today were Gary Boles and Elizabeth Benavides with the Electric Power Research Institute. Our producer is Michael Montaine.


I’m your host Mandy Henry, and we’ll see you next time.