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Nuclear Power Plant Modernization: A Tale of Two Utilities [an Energy Central PowerTalk™ with EPRI and Partners]

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Vice President of The Power Industry Network Energy Central

I am the VP of the Energy Central Power Industry Network.  In this role, I help to connect professionals in the power industry through the development and management of topic-specific community...

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In this PowerTalk "Nuclear Power Plant Modernization: A Tale of Two Utilities", Rob Austin, Senior Program Manager, Nuclear Innovation, EPRI interviews Kent Dittmer, VP Engineering, Energy Northwest, and Ken Knaide VP Engineering, PSEG Nuclear.  

Energy Central PowerTalks - are short 20–30-minute pre-recorded video or audio recording sessions focused on a topic that we feel is of interest to the industry and our community members. Energy Central members can interact with the PowerTalk by using the discussion features found at the end of the post. Please feel free to ask questions, add comments, etc. If you have questions, the Energy Central Community Management team will do our best to gain answers from the presenters and or other community members.  

Tune in now for this audio recording! 


Audra Drazga [00:00:06] Welcome to the Energy Central Power Talk titled Nuclear Power Plant Modernization: A Tale of Two Utilities. I'm Audra Drazga,  vice president of the Energy Central Power Industry Network. Energy Central is a community platform with a goal to help professionals in the industry to share, learn and connect in a collaborative environment. Our Power Talks are short, 20 to 30 minute prerecorded video or audio sessions, bringing together industry experts to share their expertise around a topic that we feel is of interest to the industry and our community members. We invite Energy Central members to interact with the Power Talk discussion by using the comments section to ask questions, share your feedback, or add your own insight. If you have questions, the Energy Central Community Management Team will do our best to gain answers from the presenters and or other community members. This session is brought to you by EPRI,  and now I'm pleased to hand the floor over to Rob Austin of EPRI, who will be hosting today's session.

Rob Austin [00:01:13] Hello. I'm Rob Austin with the Electric Power Research Institute. Keeping nuclear power plants operating for a long time contributes to global decarbonization efforts. Operating the existing fleet is especially vital to maintaining capacity and reliability to help bridge the gap. As next generation nuclear plants are built and deployed, many existing nuclear plants have operating licenses that extend beyond their original term of 40 years to 60 years, and many are expected to operate to 80 years or even beyond. Optimal and efficient health and operation of these plants throughout their lifetimes is a nuclear industry priority. Now, nuclear plant modernization, a feasible way to reduce operations and maintenance costs can, on its face, be an overwhelming prospect. There are hundreds of modernization activities that could be undertaken at a particular station, but distilling these ideas down to a few actionable ones that should be done can be a daunting task for plant operators. To assist plants through this process EPRI has developed the Plant Modernization Toolbox, a resource to facilitate decision making and execution of modernization projects at nuclear power plants. The toolbox includes a variety of comprehensive tools to guide users through developing a modernization strategy, identifying a potential suite of improvements, conducting business case studies on proposed improvements, making decisions based on these business cases, deploying the improvements, and tracking the results. Utilities are using these tools to assess the costs and benefits of modernization ideas for their specific circumstances and experience. With me today to talk about their utilities' experiences with the Toolkit and its role in development of an overall modernization strategy are Kent Dittmer, Vice President of Engineering at Energy Northwest Columbia Station, and Ken Knaide, Vice President Engineering at PSEG Salem Hope Creek Stations. Good morning, Kent and Ken.

Speaker 3 [00:03:02] Ken Good morning, Rob. How are you doing this morning?

Rob Austin  [00:03:05] Really well. Morning. So starting with Kent, what made you decide to embark upon a modernization strategy development?

Kent Dittmer [00:03:14] Well, it comes down to forward planning on our costs budget. Focusing on the budget is very important for us. We also engaged in the project to be able to pull in some different ideas, especially with some of our newer employees, you know, who are used to using different databases, different processes, take advantage of that in order to effect a change or reduce our overall costs.

Rob Austin [00:03:43] And Ken at Salem, Hope Creek, what made you decide to begin this journey?

Ken Knaide [00:03:49] Yeah, it's a similar story to what Kent just said. In 2019, in response to economic challenges, we recognize the importance of really figuring out ways to drive down our operating costs so we could really survive in the industry. And initially we had a top down approach where we saw some specific areas where we had opportunities to add efficiency and drive down our costs. And and it really was a top down approach from the executive leaders to force some cost savings. And we had some good success with that. We saved probably about $30 million in that effort, but we also recognized that it was rather informal and that it was not sustainable with just the executives driving it and it needed more structure. And that's what the plant modernization project really offered us, is the opportunity to establish a more structured approach and really an opportunity to look through some known industry opportunities and identify which ones could best be used at our stations.

Rob Austin [00:04:58] So following up, Ken, were there any challenging aspects of developing that strategy or then stepping through the first steps of the strategy?

Ken Knaide [00:05:06] Well, yeah, there were there were some challenges because we didn't really have any processes in place to address this, although EPRI had some very good tools, we needed to figure out how to apply that for our utility and integrate it with our processes. And and, you know, that was that was a bit of a challenge. For example, we have a process for doing plant modifications. So there were challenges with how the continuous improvement model would be applied and how we would integrate that into our process. So that actually took us some time to figure out what the best way to do that was. You know, I think it's a big challenge to shift the culture of the organization. And so, you know, that's probably an ongoing task that we're working through to establish a culture where everyone in the organization participates in the process to identify and drive innovative solutions to achieve efficiency.

Rob Austin [00:06:05] What about the experience at Energy in Northwest with any challenges in developing a strategy?

Kent Dittmer [00:06:11] Much the same as Ken identified. You know for us really understanding the value proposition of the plant modernization impact, keeping the people in the organizations in mind. Many times with cost reduction can turn into a headcount reduction. So there's opportunities early on with this process to be able to start that communication and discussion. You know, we looked through 200 potential improvement options and with the tool ended up narrowing that down to 75 that we think are the most effective ones to go after first. So lining that out, starting discussions early, involving people in the organizations in the decision making is the key.

Rob Austin[00:06:58] So you had over 200 ideas just at the start.

Kent Dittmer [00:07:02] Right.

Rob Austin [00:07:02] And then down to 75. And then was there a shorter list of ones to actually implement initially?

Kent Dittmer [00:07:10] Yeah. You know, there's really ones that we can go after right away, ones that need some level of funding or planning. In some cases, we're able to implement and start projects like digital valve positioners on air operated valves. We're looking more long term into forwarding scheduling techniques for outage work, business process automation with a focus on automated work packages. And then down the road, process automation for non-work order processes to reduce administrative costs. So some things that we can get going early, some that take some funding and additional planning. But in all cases, the tools helped us organize our thoughts, organize the process, and then bring the people in to help work through those activities.

Rob Austin [00:08:02] Ken, ooking at PPG, what were some of the near-term actions that the station is going to be looking at in terms of modernization projects?

Ken Knaide [00:08:11] Yeah, well, for one thing, I want to say that we've now implemented a more formalized process and that has improved our staffing to oversee the effort. So it's more structured and similar to Ken's team, we reviewed about 200 projects and have narrowed it down to about a dozen. Most of them are projects that take advantage of technology, things like robots and crawlers and drones, also artificial intelligence and virtual reality for training, that sort of thing. So a lot of great ideas that we're working through to improve our efficiencies. 

Rob Austin[00:08:51] What would you say as you move ahead, Ken? What are the benefits of doing these projects? Or to put it differently, what have you learned? And if you had to start over from the beginning, what would you change?

Ken Knaide [00:09:02] It was a great review. If I were to do it over again, I think we need to do more with the plant modernization modifications. We, basically there was about 40 of those that were amongst the 200, and we really didn't have an opportunity to explore those that well. And we're just getting into that now. So we have more work to do on that front. But I think if we could have started over again, I would have had more emphasis on that aspect of it. So we could have taken advantage of the opportunity and explored those more thoroughly.

Rob Austin [00:09:40] So you think those are projects that you'll get to at some point with the new process?

Ken Knaide [00:09:45] Yeah, I do. A lot of them are digital projects and we're we're working on our digital transformation strategy and I think it really fits well with integrating into that transformation strategy. There's really good opportunities in there. So I anticipate that we will be taking advantage of several of those on the list.

Rob Austin [00:10:07] And in terms of benefits, have you already seen some improved efficiencies or other aspects of modernization implemented at the station or still waiting for the results?

Ken Knaide [00:10:18] Well, I'm we're just finishing the outage at  our Salem station and we've taken advantage of drones to do inspections that have cost us or saved us the costs of building scaffolding and reduced the safety risks of doing inspections. You know, climbing and condensers can be a hazard, as one example.

Rob Austin [00:10:39] Kent, how have you seen the benefits of modernization strategy so far in any benefits of projects?

Kent Dittmer [00:10:47] Well, for us, the tool box really helped generate the thought and discussion like we talked about earlier, really a discussion that hadn't been occurring, wasn't a part of business, right? For now. And, you know, we talked a little bit about the people side of the modernization, but for us, you know, we put a ten year long range plan together. We're working with Bonneville Power that we develop our budget based off of that. And so this tool has helped us prioritize and fit the modernization projects into that ten year plan. What I think we would have done differently. Ken touched on it a little bit, but for us what I think needed to be thought about more. We learned it through going through the process and working on this for over a year, but really you have to factor all this into all your other processes. When you're looking at, say, a digital upgrade. Okay, well, what can you do relative to modernization, do you need to put into that project? You don't want to backfit it after you installed it. You want to integrate that as a part of the design. So what we learned and probably could have thought about this beforehand was if you're going through this process, make sure all of your other procedures and processes factor in modernization. So that was a big "aha" for us.

Rob Austin [00:12:10] Okay. I wanted to turn back to something Ken mentioned earlier. I think on culture changes, I was wondering, nuclear plants are known for safety, conscious culture and since the past 30 years go, also maybe a reliability focused culture. The plants run very well, run very safely. But what had to be added to that culture to help with modernization or innovation?

Ken Knaide [00:12:37] I mean, for us, it starts with what is the leadership direction? And one of the changes that we've made since implementing this was to make innovation one of our four fundamental focus areas for our fleet. So it sets the tone for the organization, and then we integrate that into the communications that we do on a daily, weekly basis, reinforcing great examples where innovation has improved our processes or the way we do our work so that it becomes the way that everybody thinks. Everybody's looking for the next opportunity to make things better or more efficient. So I think that creates a culture. And then as we've gone through this over the years, we see more and more of the good ideas coming from the workforce, you know, the people that do the work every day. And that's really what's necessary to get us to a sustainable culture of innovation. And and I'd say for us it is still a work in progress, but I think the continuous reinforcement of it is key to the success.

Rob Austin[00:13:45] Okay. Kent, any thoughts on culture?

Kent Dittmer [00:13:48] Yeah. You know, Ken's organization is likely a little farther along in this process. Cost reduction and cost savings has always been one of our pillars, if you will. It's a part of our excellence model, it's of our culture. But the challenge for us is, unless you're actually reducing your budget or you're offsetting some costs and able to maybe get more work done, there really is no cost reduction. Right? Budgets have to either be reduced or you're putting that money to maybe get greater equipment reliability or something. So, you know, the toolbox and what we have done to review these projects in future activities has really helped us understand where those cost savings are coming from, start the communication with our staff organizationally to discuss how we're going to manage and reduce our budget. Ken described it best when he was talking about preparing for the future and the discussion associated with his staff.

Rob Austin[00:14:53] Great. All right. Well, thanks Kent and Ken, for your time today. Any final thoughts? Start with Ken.

Ken Knaide [00:15:01] Well, I just want to thank you for the opportunity to participate here today and participate in the the pilot for the plant modernization. I think it's been a very enlightening experience and beneficial experience for us and I appreciate your your support of it. It's been good working with you and your team, Rob, throughout. It's been, I think, great teamwork to come up with a good product and a good report that'll help us move forward.

Rob Austin [00:15:26] Kent, final thoughts?

Kent Dittmer [00:15:28] Yeah, thanks, Rob. I'll echo what Ken said, and I would also offer that our team worked well with Ken's team, that that was a that benefited us significantly. For us, really the toolbox and the opportunity to work with EPRI on this, really creating some energy with some folks that wanted their ideas to be heard, wanted to provide a better future with cost reduction and keep the plant running. So. Thank you. Appreciate the opportunity to meet with you guys today.

Rob Austin [00:16:01] All right. Well, thank you. Just as we've heard, most plants face similar economic pressures to modernize and recognize the importance of sharing their experiences, lessons, costs and savings data associated modernization, improvements and modernization to equip nuclear plants with these updated technologies and improved processes to deliver greater economic efficiency and reliability as we've heard today. If you have plant modernization questions or experiences to share, we'd love to hear them. Contact us at Nuclearplantmod@epri.com and check out the plant modernization toolbox at Nuclearplantmod.com Thank you very much.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Jun 20, 2022

Nuclear plant modernization is handicapped by the heavy burden of nuclear regulations. Improvements that are quickly, easily and routinely accomplished at combined-cycle plants turn into slow moving and extremely expensive undertakings at nuclear plants. That means the nuclear plant improvements need to be carefully managed to minimize running afoul of the regulations and further balloon costs.


Robert  Austin's picture
Robert Austin on Jun 23, 2022

Hello Michael,

Most of the changes undertaken can be done in the US under 10CFR50.59, which does not require prior US NRC approval.  The EPRI business cases also identify methods to reduce the cost impact of these modernization changes as well.  I agree the improvements have to be carefully managed to manage the costs.  Thanks!  Rob

Paul Korzeniowski's picture
Paul Korzeniowski on Jul 18, 2022

Interesting topic. The long term plan is to move to renewables and get off fossil fuels. Nuclear is a good option as the transition occurs. A lack of understanding about modern options and an unwillingness to examine its merits can be deterrents. 

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Jul 18, 2022

You apparently are unfamiliar with the ramifications of the regulatory burdens. The required paper work and administrative burdens are immense and that slows down all activities to a crawl. Having managed work at both nuclear and fossil units, the required effort at nuclear plants is vastly more complicated. That is the direct result of the requirements imbedded in 10CFR50 and 52. These requirements wash through all activities, including operations.

Robert  Austin's picture
Robert Austin on Jul 21, 2022

Hello Michael,

We have actually had great success applying advanced technology to processes such as work package preparation, monitoring & diagnostics, and 3D virtual training.  While the costs to design and deploy such systems at a nuclear plant is certainly more than at a comparably sized fossil plant, these technologies can still have positive return on investment.  See https://nuclearplantmod.epri.com/  for more on our R&D about the business case propositions for various technologies.



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