In a hotel conference room in downtown Toronto, Canada, Euiyob Hwang is an hour into his presentation on lessons learned from the Wolsong nuclear plant refurbishment.

Though his allotted time is up, the audience, about 60 mid and senior level managers from Canadian nuclear plant operators and suppliers, doesn’t mind. His message of innovation, learning and perseverance in adversity, as well as the company’s achievement – a successful Candu refurbishment – is what they came to hear about.

At a ceremony this September Hwang, director of Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power’s (KHNP’s) Wolsong 1 Refurbishment Office, and his colleagues celebrated successful refurbishment of the unit 1 reactor. The unit had successfully returned to the grid after a mid-life refurbishment and enough project challenges to create a lifetime of experience for Hwang and his colleagues, not to mention more than a few grey hairs.

Nuclear refurbishments represent the two most challenging project management components: they are big and complex. They add unusual challenges, including a requirement to accomplish precise tasks with unique tooling in a radioactive environment.

The scope and time required for planning and execution is daunting. But a Candu refurbishment gives its operator the ability to take an asset that has already delivered 20 or more years of power and generate the same again.

"When you look at the economics of refurbishment versus a new build of any generation…the benefits make the effort to find solutions to the associated challenges more than worthwhile"

“When you look at the economics of refurbishment versus a new build of any generation; the avoidance of greenfield project issues; as well as the continued employment in a region built around the high-skill, high-paying jobs, the benefits make the effort to find solutions to the associated challenges more than worthwhile," says Fred Dermarkar, President of the Candu Owners Group (COG).

COG was formed in 1984 to promote collaboration on joint projects and information sharing amongst Candu operators worldwide – two ingredients required for a refurbishment. The conference where Hwang is regaling his audience with tales from the refurbishment was organised by COG as part of a larger initiative resulting from a meeting of Canada’s nuclear leaders. A few years ago, utility executives came together to identify key issues for the industry and created peer working groups to address each one of them.

“Number one on the list was refurbishment," says Ian Trotman, COG refurbishment project manager. COG took the lead, working with nuclear operators who have gone through refurbishment at their own plants and the operators who are beginning them. A veteran of the industry, Trotman has been charged with orchestrating that talent.

The reason for the leaders’ urgency on refurbishment – above other pressing industry issues – is the immediate future of the Candu plants in Ontario.

Lessons for Ontario

Just an hour east of Toronto, Canada’s largest and most populated city, sits Darlington, a four-unit, 3500MW nuclear site owned and operated by Ontario Power Generation (OPG).

"OPG is six years into planning and preparation for the mid-life refurbishment of…Darlington"

OPG is six years into planning and preparation for the mid-life refurbishment of the Darlington site’s four Candu reactors. Work already completed or nearing completion includes construction of training facilities, warehousing and other buildings; major site modifications; specialised refurbishment tooling; recruitment and training. Community education is also well underway and the initial regulatory hurdles have been crossed.

The execution phase on the first reactor is scheduled to begin within a year, and the Candu industry is either fully engaged or poised to pitch in.
“COG’s refurbishment peer group provides the forum to bring together, on a regular and timely basis, past experience, lessons learned and best practices to allow current and future refurbishment projects to benefit," says Dietmar Reiner, senior vice president for OPG’s refurbishment project.He says, "It will allow us to avoid repeating past mistakes and to optimise refurbishment projects."

Reiner adds, "The repository of lessons learned and best practices, together with regular workshops and benchmarking with other mega-projects, will ensure all COG members are aware of potential issues and have, wherever possible, the benefit of suggested corrective actions that will optimise on-going or future projects."

On the other side of Toronto, an eight-unit 6300MW nuclear plant operated by Bruce Power has already undergone two unit refurbishments and the operator is negotiating with the provincial government to refurbish the remaining six.

Together, the Darlington and Bruce plants currently generate about 60% of Ontario’s electricity.

“The unit 1 and 2 restart project presented its challenges, but Bruce Power overcame them and successfully completed the most innovative project in Canadian nuclear history," says Jeff Phelps, Bruce Power’s vice president of project management and construction. "This helped Ontario shut down its coal plants, helping to clean the air and provide low-cost, reliable electricity for Ontario homes, schools, businesses and hospitals for the next 30 years."

A three-pronged approach

The refurbishment is complex because it combines huge scale with hundreds of thousands of tasks to be completed by thousands of individual workers in a precisely-orchestrated fashion in often hostile working environments. Issues like workforce supply, and managing on an operational site require careful calculations and significant resource.

Trotman lays out a three-pronged approach. The first step is providing well-communicated guidelines, process and practices to the thousands of workers who will be on site, whether they have been at the plant for decades or are brought on to perform specific tasks.

“We need to do the things we always do anyway and continue to do them well," he says, citing strong safety culture and human performance, and enhance others during the refurbishment.

For the latter, a road map of principles and procedures is being developed following the approach taken by the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO). Trotman anticipates creating a pocket guidebook all employees will carry with them for easy reference based on proven refurbishment best practice.

A refurbishment includes activities outside the regular experience of operating staff. These will also be captured in the guiding document, but with additional training. It is critical workers complete the training well ahead of time so workers know what to expect, are practised and feel confident with specially-designed tools by the time they reach the actual workface.

Paul Thompson, a senior advisor with New Brunswick Power (NBP), who played a significant leadership role during Point Lepreau refurbishment told the Toronto conference about life after refurbishment at Point Lepreau, on Canada’s east coast. He has learned that the best reactor mockups are as close as possible to an exact replica of the real thing, including the conditions and lighting.

OPG has been a partner with NBP, helping and learning from the New Brunswick refurbishment experience. It has created a training facility with multiple mockup models, including a replica of the Darlington reactor vault. It houses a full-scale, reconfigurable replica reactor suitable for tool performance testing and integration, as well as training purposes. Thirteen additional mockups add to the potential and versatility of the training facility.

The reactor mockup was measured to the millimetre to provide an accurate training ground and the best conditions for tool testing and development. Even the entrance and walls of the reactor building were replicated to ensure all equipment used during simulation would fit the space when it came to the real thing.

“The mockup allows staff to practise the work, perfect the techniques and perform full dress rehearsals using actual tools while wearing the protective equipment before they begin work inside the station," explains OPG’s Reiner. "It provides the workers with a safe, realistic and controlled environment with all the obstacles, constraints and potential challenges they may face when they are in the station."

"“We are gathering all the lessons learned but then it is what we do with them to make them useful in the field that counts"

Sharing operating experience is the second part of Trotman’s plan.“We are gathering all the lessons learned but then it is what we do with them to make them useful in the field that counts," he says. With so many details covering planning, execution and post-refurbishment, it will be vital to find a way to organise learnings in a format that can be easily shared.

It is about getting the right experience to the right managers and their teams at the right time.

Learnings from Bruce Power’s last refurbishment will play a starring role next time around, says Phelps. "The lessons learned, which can be divided into seven main themes, have resulted in a number of changes within Bruce Power and are a particular focus in the lead-up to the next round of investment to secure the site as outlined in Ontario’s Long Term Energy Plan. In fact, these lessons learned have fundamentally altered the way in which Bruce Power will tackle this type of work both from a planning and execution perspective."

One lesson consistent through all the Candu refurbishments has been the need for collaboration and effective communication amongst all parties involved in the refurbishment from utilities to contractors to suppliers. That is why COG has drawn in representatives for its peer groups from all these categories.

This was a piece the nuclear leadership was particularly interested in making happen, says Dermarkar reflecting on the early days of the Nuclear Leadership Forum. The need for collaboration beyond the utility employees is "an absolutely critical issue for both (Bruce Power and OPG) refurbs," says Trotman. "We need to break down silos and work synergistically." A workshop specifically focusing on the supplier-utility interface is scheduled for 2016.

Bringing everyone together is the third part of Trotman’s work. "This is really where the workshops come in," he says. "They are a chance to share and to collaborate."

At OPG, Reiner agrees. "Building on the lessons learned from recent refurbishments, Ontario’s nuclear industry has built the capability to execute future refurbishments on time and budget. The main lessons learned that will drive this success is more focused scope, greater precision on advanced preparations, and ensuring a consolidated execution capability within the industry," he says.

Part of bringing all the experience to the table has meant looking to those in the industry, like Thompson, Phelps and Hwang, who have come out the other side of a refurbishment. Nucleoeléctrica Argentina Sociedad Anónima (NASA), Argentina’s nuclear operator, is a contributor too, says Dermarkar. That includes reciprocal benchmarking visits between Canada and Argentina.

Another avenue for learning, says Trotman, is to look at lessons learned elsewhere, outside the nuclear family. "We tend as a group to talk to ourselves. Looking beyond our industry can give us some new ideas."

As the afternoon continues, the Toronto conference the attendees hear from project experts who undertake overhauls of aircraft carriers. This work is very similar to a reactor refurbishment. Next is a company that uses data gathered from oil refineries and chemical plants to provide data-driven advice on how to develop and plan successful mega projects.

Although many of the project concepts are already familiar to the refurbishment teams, Trotman points out that "lessons learned and best practices may already be known, but unless they are rigorously implemented they are only theoretical."