Planning and partnership

7 September 2011

Bob Boychuk, Hydratight’s nuclear portfolio leader, discusses the key to successful maintenance

Nuclear plants are huge undertakings with thousands of parts and systems, all of which are expected to work for year after year without breakdown or significant problems.

This should be achieved by regular and conscientious maintenance. But do outage operations always achieve what they set out to achieve? Are there times when more, or better, advance planning could mean jobs would be completed on the current schedule, rather than being held over to the next?

I recently attended a European conference on plant life management and was quite surprised that in two days of papers and presentations, only one speaker addressed the importance of quality inspection and proper certification of subcontractors, procedures and equipment, essential for outage forward planning to make sure essential operations could be completed to the highest standards, in the time and budget allotted.

So perhaps a few suggestions are in order. I can only offer guidelines about the way Hydratight goes about things: you may prefer another way and contractors you trust might likewise work in a way that has always satisfied you in the past. But as a company that works on more than 50% of the 70 or so scheduled outages a year in the US alone, Hydratight has collected a wealth of knowledge about best practice in these matters. With assets getting older and costs rising accordingly, the importance of careful planning and partnership with a trusted contractor really comes into its own. Such a partnership, with someone whose work and technicians you know are fully certified, and is the OEM of the equipment supplied goes a long way towards ensuring safety and efficiency — and getting a plant back online as quickly as possible.

• 'Partnership' is a word thrown around a lot, but it really is crucial for project success. Plant owners need to be involved with their contractor as early as possible in the project. That way the right questions can be asked and the threat of the unknown largely avoided. For example, avoid hold-ups such as finding an essential piece of lifting gear wasn’t ordered and equipment couldn’t be hoisted into place. Advance planning would have seen a crane was needed and onsite when the crew arrived, and a 24-hour delay avoided. Let’s not forget what that much time can cost a facility in shutdown!

• We have a saying within the company: plan out most of the possible problems, and be good enough to work through the rest. It is a saying becoming more important as assets age. Scheduled maintenance can turn into unexpected repairs and when these occur, a contractor needs to know his stuff to put them right without losing too much extra time. More than ever it is essential for your contractor’s technical staff to have experience and full training for the work they are being asked to do. We have pioneered such training for our technicians in all our bolting and machining divisions around the world, and that is true too for our nuclear operations staff.

• That leads to a third point: a contractor must know the equipment he is using. You don't want to have to stop the job because you have the wrong gear, or have it fail when time is of the essence. So equipment inspection and refurbishment is always a major priority, as is the ability to be flexible on site. Making a mistake when resealing the reactor vessel, for example — maybe because the equipment is new or unfamiliar to technicians — may mean the difference between success and major damage.

In that respect we admit to a big advantage over many companies: we design and manufacture much of the tooling and equipment our field service engineers use in providing service globally, so know precisely how to use and maintain it.

• Treat all plant maintenance as critical path activity. There is, of course, a sizeable argument for saying that is exactly what it is. Acting as if every part of the process is critical in terms of time or money requires tools and technicians to be on peak form, so the work is done as quickly as possible and to the highest standards. When CP time costs an average $50,000 an hour. Using the best tools and manpower and assuming everything is a top priority can ultimately offer savings.

• For successful outcomes, planning and advance work are key: they pull together equipment and manpower and ensure the right people with the right tools are in the right place at the right time. Planning prevents delays, reduces added costs and ensures the personnel are actually available when they are needed.

So, an outage schedule for Hydratight might look something like this:

• Ideally, secure the work six months in advance. Talk through requirements with the plant owner, set out likely tooling and manpower needs.

• Three to four months in advance of start date carry out a physical pre-outage check by reviewing the site, looking for potential choke points. Test the equipment on site, especially if you know it is to be used during the outage. If damaged items or cables are found, make sure they will be repaired before start date. You don’t want to find, just before work is about to start, that your have any inoperable gear. At this point it may be too late to get it repaired or replaced before your crew and half a dozen others start to move into position to handle the outage work. Finding this and repairing it three months in advance means the work doesn’t suffer unexpected delays.

At Hydratight our nuclear crew is split into two teams: refuelling and maintenance. One team deals with the reactor vessel, specifically the reactor vessel head flange (again, we make the majority of specialist tools in use for this purpose — our latest models can cut the time to open and close the vessel in half).

The second team handles general maintenance and repairs to other parts of the plant as required.

Here again teamwork and planning come into their own. Gone are the days when engineers could work long hours over several days: now each person’s hours are logged individually, not as part of a team, to ensure no one suffers the sort of work fatigue that can lead to errors and dangerous mistakes.

There is an easy way to overcome this sort of problem: we calculate the number of man hours needed and if the figures say we need 10 people, we send 12 (advance planning of our own ensuring that the extra men would be on hand and not allocated elsewhere, of course). This 10 per cent margin allows for the possibility of work fatigue and for the rules about days off.

Indeed this is another argument for having contractors do this work, either instead of or alongside, in-house technicians: the workforce can more readily accommodate days off because more technicians are available. Using outside help also means there can always be an on-site engineer to advise and direct operations.

As a company Hydratight prides itself on its level of professionalism and its safety record. One of the chief attributes we offer clients is the knowledge that we send out on particular jobs only technicians we know have the training and expertise for the tasks they will be required to undertake: no subs, no apprentices.

This is another reason why planning is paramount: we know the tasks that have been planned, we and the onsite engineers have worked through goals and possible problems; advance repairs have been dealt with and equipment ordered. All we have to do on day one is the job we are hired to do.

That brings us back to the start of this article. I asked if your site ever put off to the next outage schedule work it had hoped to do on the present one, because the work had stretched beyond the available time.

I hope I have convinced you that doing the advance planning is always better than simply hoping things go well.

If your contractor plans ahead and works a real partnership with you, you’re doing it right. If not, perhaps it’s time to reconsider how you do things, and to see if you can do them better.

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