UWC 2020: A call for transformational change

August 12, 2020, 6:25PMNuclear News

Bowing to current COVID-19 realities but buoyed by the success of June’s virtual Annual Meeting, ANS event planners returned to the virtual realm for this year’s Utility Working Conference. Originally scheduled for August 9–12 at Marco Island, Fla., the condensed event was held Wednesday, August 11, wherever registrants’ computer devices happened to be located.

In addition to 26 educational sessions and workshops, UWC 2020 featured an opening plenary session titled “Achieving Transformational Change: A leadership discussion,” moderated by Bob Coward, MPR Associates principal officer and ANS past president (2017–2018). Plenary panelists included representatives from three utilities—Arizona Public Service (APS), Exelon, and Xcel Energy—plus the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

In addition to coverage of the opening plenary further below, Newswire also covered other UWC sessions from the day, which are available for reading here:

  • More from UWC 2020 Click here
  • More from UWC 2020: Round 2 Click here
  • More from UWC 2020: Round 3 Click here

The opening plenary coverage starts directly below:

In introductory remarks during the opening plenary, Coward emphasized the need for transformational change in the nuclear sector via a slide showing the stark difference between the revenue that a utility might have expected to receive for a plant’s power generation 10 years ago and what it can expect today. “If your plant … had the same capacity as Limerick, and you ran really well 100 percent of the time for that full 12 months, you were paid about $430 million less for your product than you were 10 years ago,” Coward said. “When we talk about changes in the market, when we talk about the whole business model changing, that’s the impact we’re talking about. That’s what we’re up against.… Essentially every plant in the country, including the regulated utilities, are facing similar cost pressures. We as an industry, as one collaborative team, really have no choice. We have to adapt and evolve, and we have to get even better.”

Xcel: Tim O’Connor, Xcel Energy’s chief generation officer and executive vice president, talked of a “new grid reality,” stating that he could see “as much as 50 to 70 percent penetration in intermittent resources in the next 10 years on almost any grid that we operate,” which will require the nuclear industry to employ dispatching and idling strategies.

“I know we don’t want to hear that, but that is a reality,” O’Connor said. “What’s the value of nuclear? We’ve been promoting that we’re carbon free, we’re promoting that we’re good baseload units, and those are all solid. But is that what the grid’s going to require? Not exactly. There are times when it will, there will be times when it won’t. That is real, which means we’re going to have to think differently quickly about how we operate these units and the service that they provide, which opens the door to other value streams that nuclear could provide.”

One such value stream for nuclear, O’Connor noted, could be the production of hydrogen. “A clean energy source making another clean energy source that could be used in a larger environment, not just for electricity, but for other markets, such as steel fabrication, chemicals, fertilizers—just a whole host of opportunities,” he said. “But I think that it’s a winner. Now, it’s not cost competitive yet, and that’s the whole point of some of the research projects that are going on.”

The new grid reality also demands better management of data, according to O’Connor. “We just plain manage data in a very arduous, human-centric approach,” he said. “We have to accelerate artificial intelligence and other types of methods that can help us better understand the information we have and translate it in a way that allows us to be more agile, as well as accurate and focused around the running of these facilities. I personally believe that technology and data can absolutely step change our performance to meet regulatory, INPO, any number of requirements that are out there, and do it more efficiently, accurately, and with less likelihood of human performance error. And I think we can do it with less expense.”

Arizona Public Service: Maria Lacal, Arizona Public Service’s executive vice president and Palo Verde’s chief nuclear officer, agreed with O’Connor on the necessity of industry transformation, but she added that it needs to be tailored to a company’s particular needs and culture and to its own societal, regulatory, and political environments.

“Each of us needs to use slightly different tools and apply different forces at different times as necessary,” Lacal said. “In Arizona, we have a problem with increasing solar capacity within our state and the neighbor to the west of us, California. It’s really created this issue of excess generation. And for us, negative pricing—it is available on the grid during certain times of the day and during certain seasons of the year, and we’ve got studies showing that by the year 2025 and beyond, the need for Palo Verde to flexibly operate becomes a reality. But I want to be really clear, if operating flexibly means operating less, we’re really not interested.”

What does interest APS is operating Palo Verde differently, Lacal said, pointing to its collaboration with other utilities and Idaho National Laboratory to develop and demonstrate an integrated light-water reactor hybrid energy system. The two-year project will initially demonstrate and deploy a 1–3-MWe low-temperature electrolysis unit to produce commercial quantities of hydrogen.

“For us, it’s using excess energy from Palo Verde and creating hydrogen to do a blend at one of our fossil plants,” Lacal said. “We really believe that the production of hydrogen from nuclear energy is going to enable and accelerate the decarbonization of the electric grid, as well as transportation and heavy industry.”

Lacal also mentioned that a team from Palo Verde won the Nuclear Energy Institute’s “Best of the Best” Top Innovative Practice Award in July for the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning. “We really need to continue to challenge our engineering and our support groups to transform how we use technology, thereby increasing our efficiency and decreasing our overall costs,” she said.

On the regulatory front, Lacal endorsed a change to a more risk-informed type of NRC regulation. “I’m the chair of [NEI’s] Risk Informed Steering Committee, and along with my colleagues, we are working very closely with the NRC on risk-informed initiatives,” she said. “Eliminating the current administrative burden associated with low-safety-significance items not only makes good nuclear safety sense, but also good business sense. I think our ability to become more efficient and timely on regulatory decision-making by risk-informing our work results in increased margins to safety while reducing administrative burdens and costs.”

Exelon: Scot Greenlee, Exelon’s senior vice president of engineering and technical support, took a look back at topics discussed at UWC 2016 (he was the general chair of that conference) and provided updates on progress made since then as well as thoughts on what might be required going forward.

On the topic of simplifying the regulatory framework, Greenlee reported success. “It took us a long time—it was a very slow success—but the NRC just recently approved the 50.59 guidelines on digital upgrades,” he said. “Essentially, what we have in place now is that we can do digital upgrades on anything except for plant protection systems. So that’s a huge win. Now that we have control of most of our destiny for most of our systems, I think we can get to simplifying the amount of work that it takes to upgrade something from analog to digital.”

Less progress has been made on equipment performance monitoring, however, according to Greenlee. “We’re about 20 percent of where we need to be,” he said. “We really need to get to the point where the computers do all of the performance monitoring and provide us with the outputs of when to go do maintenance.”

Greenlee estimated the industry to be “20 or 30 percent down the road” on digital processes, but he added that the move to digital is accelerating. “We’ve put in place electronic work packages,” he said. “That’s an awesome platform, because you can do things like embed videos in your work packages so the maintenance folks can do just-in-time training to ensure that they’re able to execute flawlessly.”

There has been “terrific progress” on drones and robotics, Greenlee said—citing such examples as drone use for condenser inspections during outages—and “good progress” on risk-informed regulation and thinking.

Another 2016 discussion topic, accident tolerant fuel, was not something the industry had a huge amount of interest in at the time, according to Greenlee. Since then, however, the idea has “really moved forward quickly, and the challenge to our vendors is to have accident tolerant fuel in place by 2023,” he said. “I think we’re a bit behind on that schedule, though. For us, it’s probably going to be more like 2024. There are risk-informed methodologies that we’re starting to work on to accelerate the pace of accident tolerant fuel. But we’ve really just started to have the conversations with NRC on what that might look like.”

INPO: Jeff Place, executive vice president at INPO, provided a look at how the industry has responded to the pandemic—an agent of transformational change if anything is—and how the pandemic has altered his organization.

“Through the second quarter of 2020, the industry is performing at its highest levels ever,” Place said, adding that industry performance in the second quarter actually improved from that of the pre-pandemic first quarter. “We saw the industry take some strong early actions as it rolled into the pandemic and made some of the initial changes to its workforce and workflows. There were a few human performance events that popped up—we were paying attention to that; we were working with the industry, and I would say that the industry took those on with resounding success. We have not seen the human performance events that we were seeing in the first couple of weeks in March. So the industry has become very resilient through this pandemic.”

Place said that INPO is treating the pandemic as an opportunity to accelerate some of its innovations, including conducting some INPO activities virtually, such as remote accreditation team visits and material review visits. In addition, INPO now offers something called Virtual Online Leadership Training, or VOLT. “Just like the utilities, we believe we have to innovate as well, to do our jobs more effectively and efficiently going forward,” Place said. “We are taking all of our operations through a formal innovation process.”

Another of INPO’s innovations is da Vinci, a reimagining of accreditation, according to Greenlee. “As all utility members recognize, going through an accreditation process … is a pretty large undertaking,” he said. “So we worked with the industry. Some of the big key takeaways out of this is that we’ve eliminated the accreditation self-evaluation report, which was a roll-up, really, of all the self-evaluations that the utility had done at that station to get prepared for our accreditation process. We are just going to be looking at the actual individual self-evaluation reports. That’s a huge savings for the industry, and we think that we get what we need to make good decisions.… We’ve already carried this out five times, and four of the stations have had their programs renewed remotely—they did not have to come in front of the accrediting board.”

The NRC: The plenary’s final speaker, Christopher T. Hanson, the newest NRC commissioner, returned to the topic of accident tolerant fuel early in his presentation. He stated that among the things he is most proud of from his time on Capitol Hill—where he served as a staff member on the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Energy and Water Subcommittee under Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.)—is his work on the Department of Energy’s accident tolerant fuel program.

“The program was a little slow to get going,” Hanson recalled. “I can’t speak to the utility side, but I can speak to the DOE side, and there were, I think, repeated attempts at DOE to deprioritize it. But with sustained focus and funding from Congress, I think to date three utilities have loaded, and I believe extracted, lead test assemblies. National laboratories have provided really valuable analytical support, and vendors are examining changes to their facilities to support eventual manufacture and distribution.”

Also, while affirming the importance of the NRC’s commitment to reasonable assurance of adequate protection, Hanson declared his approval of reform, transformation, and innovation. The agency is hard at work to ensure that it is a modern, risk-informed regulator, according to Hanson, ready to meet the challenges presented by a rapidly changing and innovating nuclear industry.

“It's also been reevaluating the way it does business to optimize its processes and procedures to better serve the American public, and these initiatives are taking place both across the agency as well as within individual program offices,” Hanson said. “But to leverage the innovations developed within those individual offices, the agency is encouraging a culture that's open to sharing ideas and creating tools to easily do that. The executive director for operations has supported crowdsourcing initiatives, even creating a challenge campaign to identify alternative and more efficient ways of doing things.”

Hanson also highlighted Embark Venture Studio, the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation’s dedicated resource for promoting and implementing innovation projects to benefit the nuclear reactor safety program, as well as other NRC business lines.

As a further example of NRC innovation, Hanson pointed to the agency’s mission analytics portal, which integrates data from different sources to give staff a clearer view of useful information. “For example,” Hanson said, “it has dashboards that can show supervisors the distribution of open licensing actions and a comparison and estimated versus actual hours spent on those actions. In the future, we should be able to use the same tools to mine data from available sources such as inspection reports, so the data can provide insights we wouldn’t otherwise see, leading to more transparent and informed decision-making."

In closing, Hanson provided his thoughts on risk-informed regulation and the NRC’s move in that direction. “The final ingredient, I think, in risk-informed regulation, and maybe the most important in my view, is culture and diversity. Risk-informed regulation is really about characterizing uncertainty. There is necessarily a lot of professional and personal judgment implied in that. And data is critical, but we all know data can be interpreted a wide variety of ways. Having staff of diverse backgrounds and viewpoints helps ensure that uncertainties are fully understood and characterized, so NRC can provide reasonable assurance of adequate protection.”

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