Westinghouse training first class of startup engineers to staff new nuclear reactors

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David A. Neal holds up a large cardboard photo of a nuclear reactor control room, circa 1975 -- it resembles the room where Jack Godell, played by Jack Lemmon, had his own personal meltdown in "The China Syndrome" -- and points out the plethora of knobs and switches.

"We've replaced those with a mouse," he says.

He is describing the control room that will be part of Westinghouse Electric Co.'s newest generation of nuclear reactor, the AP1000. He is also describing a simulated control room that duplicates the real thing.

The simulated control room, which was completed in August, occupies a basement-level space at Westinghouse's headquarters in Cranberry. It was built to give participants in a new training program the opportunity to practice operating a nuclear power plant.

The simulation extends beyond that room, including a digital lab room and a "flow loop" lab room.

It's part of Westinghouse's new Startup Test Engineer Training Facility, a first-of-its-kind facility for training engineers to start up, test and maintain AP1000 power plants.

The inaugural class of the training program began Aug. 30, and will conclude Oct. 1. The 23 class members include both longtime Westinghouse employees and employees newly hired to become plant engineers. Mr. Neal is the principal instructor.

The mock control room is squarish, windowless and equipped with compressed air for use if an emergency requires occupants to remain there for an extended period of time. The upper parts of its walls are covered with 65-inch LCD monitors that can display schematics of the entire plant or a spreadsheet indicating the operating status of different components: yellow for low alert, red for "immediate action required."

In the middle of the room, desks are arranged in a large U shape, with its cusp facing forward. The desks provide space for three operator stations, each with four computer monitors.

"When we get the first one built, it will look just like this," Mr. Neal said.

That first live control room will be part of an AP1000 under construction in Sanmen County, Zhejiang Province, in southeast China. Westinghouse has contracts to build four power plants in China, at a cost of $4 billion to $6 billion each; Sanmen 1, as it has been named, is slated to go online in November 2013.

Sixteen of the engineers now being trained will be deployed to China for 21/2 to four years to help get Sanmen 1 up and running.

Successive classes will provide engineers for Sanmen 2; for two plants in Haiyang, Shandong Province; and for plants to be built closer to home in Georgia and South Carolina.

The training program helps to meet a challenge facing the industry, said operations president Ric Perez.

Many power plants have exceeded their planned lifetimes, and the work force operating them is aging.

"One of the big challenges that we have is that the generation that started the plants in the '70s and the '80s, a lot of the runway is behind them," he said.

For those workers, said Greg Weaver, who oversees the training, most of the training was on the job, resulting in an industry joke that a startup engineer's "experience and knowledge was directly proportional to the amount of ruined equipment he left in his wake."

The program's goal with a new generation of startup engineers is "giving them a good foundation so that they're not learning as they go along."

The new engineers will put the AP1000s through 16 to 18 months of pre-operational testing, in which they check out each of the 100 or so systems that make up the power plant. Then the plant being tested will receive an initial load of nuclear fuel and undergo another four months of testing as an integrated unit.

By the time the plant goes online, it will have gone through as much as two years of testing.

One intended result, Mr. Weaver said, is that the new plants will perform much nearer to capacity than plants from the 1970s and 1980s. When a plant went online then, he said: "Maybe we didn't shake it out enough. We didn't work out the all the bugs, and so therefore you're having to fix them as you go along."

Each AP1000 will have its own simulator on site, said David Constance, startup manager for the Haiyang plants, to provide training at that particular plant.

"When I first started, we didn't have a simulator in my plant," Mr. Neal said. "It's the most awesome training tool you'll ever have."

Elwin Green: egreen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1969.


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