Tracking staffing at US nuclear plants

29 April 1999

US nuclear plants continue to reduce staffing in preparation for competition in the electricity supply market. As the number of workers used at US plants, including contractors, moves closer to European levels, operators are still finding that they can improve plant performance. by TIM D MARTIN

Thus far, at least 17 states in the United States have passed legislation to deregulate the electricity market in their state. Customers will soon have a choice of who is the provider of their electricity. Cost of that electricity will be a major factor in the selection process, particularly for the industrial and commercial users. Reducing the cost to generate electricity is an important process that all generators are working on so they will remain competitive and increase shareholder value.

In Europe, similar market forces are at work as utilities deregulate and trade restrictions are eased. Future European trade agreements will likely increase the amount of cross-border electricity sales. The planned shutdown of nuclear plants in Sweden and Germany will contribute to pricing uncertainty.

For nuclear plants, reducing costs means reducing staff. For virtually every nuclear plant in the world, 75% of the non-fuel operations and maintenance costs (non-fuel O&M) is due to staff, including utility employees and contractors. Since this is the most controllable cost component for a nuclear plant, reducing this cost requires that the number of people who operate and maintain the plant must be reduced.


In the United States, plant staffing began decreasing in 1993, as seen in Chart 1. The greatest industry-wide reductions were accomplished in the past three years as the highest-staffed plants made major reductions.

The rate of change in staffing has remained at about 3-4% per year, as shown in Chart 2.

Recent decreases in staffing at these plants varied with job function. At Tim D Martin & Associates we track 45 different nuclear functions; of these 45 the largest reductions have been in the maintenance function as shown in Chart 3.


For plant staffing comparisons we use three benchmarks:

• Average – mean staffing levels from all plants in the database.

• Best performer – based on plants with top performance as measured by three year averages for non-fuel operating and maintenance costs, capacity factors, and US Nuclear Regulatory Commission performance ratings.

• Lowest – based on the best performer plants with the lowest staffing in each of 45 functions.

In 1998, the best performer US nuclear plant total staffing is near 1200 for two units and 800 for one unit (Chart 4).


As nuclear plants adopt more efficient practices, which allow them to reduce their staffing levels, staffing is becoming more a function of plant size. Larger plants require larger staffs. This relationship is true for nuclear plants in the US and in Europe. As shown in Chart 5, with the exception of the old Soviet-designed VVER/RBMK units, the smaller plants have staffing levels consistent with larger plants.

Although total staff size at nuclear plants in the US is higher than many European nuclear plants, the plant staffing functional distribution is very similar. As shown in Chart 6, the operations and maintenance functional staffing at the best plants in the United States have reached best European levels.


United States nuclear plant contractor staffing is levelling off to about 10% as indicated by Chart 7.

Chart 8 shows how the distribution of contractors at US nuclear plants has changed in the past two years. Engineering and radiation protection percentage has increased mostly due to an increase in workload. Maintenance percentage has decreased due to the lowering of overall maintenance staffing.


Reducing staff at a nuclear plant must be done properly or performance can be impacted. In the US, these staffing reductions were accomplished at the same time that performance improved. Capacity factors are increasing (Chart 9); as production costs continue to decrease (Chart 10).

With decreasing staffing and lower operating costs US nuclear plants have improved safety performance as shown in Chart 11.


Traditional shift approaches are changing at many US nuclear plants.

For example, operations groups have reduced crews and shortened shifts. Most plant operations groups have reduced to five crews. About half of operations groups are now on 8 vs 12-hour shifts. About 50% of plants have up to two other groups that rotate with operations, normally radiation protection and chemistry.

Maintenance groups have reduced back-shift coverage. About half of the maintenance groups have reduced to two shifts. Almost 75% have maintenance crews on 8-hour shifts. On average, 80% of maintenance crews are on day shift.

Non-shift workers such as engineering and technical support are beginning to use alternate work schedules. 55% still work “regular business hours” (5 shifts of 8 hours). 45% now work alternate schedules: 4 - 10s or the “9 - 80s” (80 hours over 9 days with alternate Fridays off). Most plants with alternate schedules have changed from 5 - 8s within the last 3 years.

The use of work teams and a centralised work management system have improved plant maintenance productivity even as maintenance staffing is decreasing.

Also, as nuclear plant staffing has been reduced, the increased use of automation has allowed the workload to be performed with fewer people. Some of the current examples are:

• More efficient work scheduling software.

• On-line maintenance planning.

• Computer based predictive maintenance programmes.

• Electronic document control and storage.

• On-line procedures update and retrieval capability.

• Information systems migrating to client servers from mainframes.

• More efficient internal communications (intranets, e-mail, voice mail, etc).


Focusing on costs and staffing reductions are expected to continue in the US as deregulation is implemented in more states. We can, therefore, expect the following staffing trends to persist:

• Nuclear staffing will reduce by an average of 3% per year.

• Staffing reductions will focus on plant administration and support, maintenance and engineering.

• Most plants are reducing staff through attrition.

• Process changes will be needed to accommodate fewer people.

Failure to reduce costs can have severe consequences, including shutdown of the plant or attempts to sell the entire facility. In the past two years, this has become very evident. The Zion, Maine Yankee and Connecticut Yankee nuclear power plants were shutdown permanently due to costs. Boston Edison’s Pilgrim and GPU Nuclear’s Three Mile Island unit 1 plants have recently been sold.

The risk and results of not controlling costs and staffing are very real. Nuclear utilities will continue to find ways to reduce staffing while improving performance..

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