Retooling the Workforce for Small Modular Reactors

Smaller reactors have many advantages, but in order to be cost effective in competitive energy markets a typical small modular reactor (SMR) will need to operate with a much smaller workforce than today’s large commercial nuclear energy facilities.  This will mandate a retooling of existing nuclear training programs to align with the knowledge and skills needed by the SMR staff.

As opposed to fossil-fueled power plants in which the majority of operating costs are associated with the fuel they burn, the majority of the costs of generating electricity from nuclear energy are associated with the costs of capital to build the plant, and the ongoing cost of people needed to operate and maintain (O&M) the plant.  The capital costs, determined by construction & financing costs, are generally fixed during the first decades of operation.  The O&M costs, however, vary over the life of the plant and are highly dependent on overall labor costs; the number of people required and their salaries and benefits, contracted labor costs, and the cost of out-sourced services. For this reason the long-term economic viability of nuclear energy facilities relies upon maintaining capacity factors high and labor costs reasonable and predictable.  Obviously, the balance sheet also depends on the structure of the energy market in which the facility is located.

Anti-nuclear groups understand this connection between labor costs and economic viability.  For years their strategy has been to convince nuclear regulators of the need for ever-tougher standards resulting in larger and larger staff sizes and thus tighter profit margins.  They are, in a very deliberate way, working to regulate nuclear energy out of business.  Coupled with lower electricity market prices brought about by falling natural gas prices, these higher labor costs mean some smaller nuclear plants are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain profitability. Utilities planning to deploy SMRs can expect these same anti-nuclear groups to push for regulations to limit their ability to operate with the smaller staff sizes needed.

Using “ball park” numbers, today’s large 1000 MWe nuclear plants typically employ a staff of about 700 people, or about 0.7 people per megawatt. At this ratio a 100 MWe SMR would employ only about 70.  Under today’s paradigm of division of labor within a nuclear plant, separate groups of specialized workers perform various functions; operators operate the plant, maintenance technicians maintain and repair the equipment, chemists monitor and control the chemistry within plant systems, planners and schedulers do the planning and scheduling, and radiation protection technicians monitor radiation levels and help ensure everyone works safely.  The staff size enables economies of scale; in this case specialization is efficient because the amount of work being performed is more than enough to fully engage each specialized group. In recent years most nuclear plants have deployed cross functional “Fix-It-Now” or FIN teams made up of one or two people from each specialty. The FIN Teams are highly efficient at performing a routine or less complex maintenance tasks that require multiple skill sets.

The smaller, simpler physical plant typical of an SMR will mean a lower overall volume of maintenance, and less opportunity to take advantage of the economies of scale afforded by workforce specialization. This translates into the need for a multi-skilled staff in which the same people who operate the plant perform a wide rage of maintenance tasks.  Much like a FIN Team, operators in SMRs will likely plan their own maintenance work, perform their own chemical monitoring and analysis, and provide their own radiation protection coverage.  With broader skill sets required, the training programs for this new breed of SMR operator-technician will need to include greater coverage of operations, maintenance, chemistry, and radiation protection knowledge and skills than do the training programs currently in place for the more specialized operators and technicians at gigawatt scale reactors.

This is not a new concept; the Nuclear Navy has used a multi-skilled operator concept since it’s beginning.  On a submarine every operator also has a maintenance specialty, and when not operating the power plant they perform maintenance on their assigned equipment.  In fact, the specialization that exists in today’s land-based utility-sized nuclear plants came about as a natural evolution of the larger staff sizes needed to maintain the scores of pumps and miles of pipes and wiring that exist in gigawatt scale nuclear plants.  The commercial SMR organization will need to look and function much more like that of another type of SMR, the “small mobile reactor” (or “Small Marine Reactor”).

There are alternatives. For example,

  • Utilities with other generating assets could rely on roving teams of maintenance specialists to perform more complex repairs, limiting the need for the SMR staff to undertake these tasks.  This would work particularly well if an SMR were located near an existing larger commercial reactor.
  • Workers who serve the utility’s coal and gas power plants could be cross-trained to work on the SMRs.
  • Different companies operating the same vintage of SMR could form alliances and create maintenance teams that would travel from reactor to reactor.
  • Utilities operating SMRs could out-source more complex maintenance activities to third-party service providers.

Many of these approaches are already in use at fossil-fueled and renewable generating stations, and at some large utilities that operate mostly non-nuclear power stations, but have one or two nuclear plants. Whichever approaches utilities elect to deploy, it will require retooling the existing nuclear training programs to align with the SMR technologies, workforce strategies, and management philosophies. A step-by-step approach to accomplish this retooling would be:

  1. Establish an over-arching vision of how the SMR will operated and maintained within an “all in” target labor budget.
  2. Create a set of organization design principles that encompass the ideals set forth in the vision. This vision should consider what types of work the station staff will perform, what work will be handled by alliance partners, what will be out-sourced, and when contingent labor would be brought in to fill the gap.
  3. Develop an operating system; essentially a high level description of “who does what” at the SMR. Define roles and responsibilities for each group within and outside of the organization.
  4. Design a model SMR organization that conforms to the design principles and implements the operating system within the established labor budget.
  5. Perform a job and task analysis (JTA) for each category of worker in the SMR organization. The JTA forms the bases for identifying the necessary knowledge, skills, and abilities each training program must impart to participants. This is the first step in the “systematic approach to training” and is the precursor to designing and developing the SMR training programs.
  6. Engage human resources professionals to establish a compensation structure aligned with the model organization, a long rage workforce plan, and a talent sourcing strategy.
  7. These strategies could evolve over time as additional SMR units are added to the site and efficiencies of scale become available.

The specifics of the JTAs will depend among other things on the SMR design, the technologies deployed, the man-machine interface, and the ease of maintenance.  It would be prudent for the engineers involved in the design of the first wave of SMRs to “think like” operators, maintenance technicians, chemists, and radiation protection technicians as they put the finishing touches on their designs and operating license applications.  Without consideration of the knowledge and skills it will take to operate, maintain, and repair the first generation of SMRs, designers risk building machines that cannot be economically operated.

Author: John Wheeler

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