Power Plant Operator Training

The Importance of Training to Promote Power Plant Safety

Historically, the commercial production of electricity has always been a hazardous occupation and the origin of some of the most serious workplace accidents. Merely working with high voltages can be dangerous enough, but the technology used to produce them pose many additional hazards for an unwary worker. The dangers, including fire and explosion, are particularly prevalent in coal-fired facilities. Nevertheless, regardless of the generation process, it remains vital for operators to apply every precaution necessary to ensure power plant safety. 

Sometimes, the required measures are relatively straightforward, like keeping coal stores damp to prevent airborne dust particles, which can spontaneously combust, and eliminating flame sources in such high-risk areas. Burns resulting from an arc flash are another common hazard and usually the result of carelessness when working near energised switchgear. Insulated gloves and fire-proof clothing are essential to protect against such mishaps. However, ultimately, the most effective defence against fire, explosion and the many other hazards operators must face daily is to ensure their day-to-day actions comply with power plant safety best practices. Intensive training will invariably be the most effective means to achieve this. 

Despite contrary public concerns and the potential dangers arising from ionising radiation or criticality, statistics confirm that nuclear fission to generate electricity is safe and necessary. The accident at Fukushima Daiichi resulted from seismic activity and caused a minor containment breach. By contrast, the Chernobyl event involved an intense fire. In this case, investigations suggest that poorly-trained operatives might have been responsible, further evidence of the link between training and power plant safety.

In the absence of a breakthrough in fusion technology, fission reactors promise the best prospect of sustainable energy. Thirty-six countries have already embraced this technology, and plans for new reactors are widespread. The South African government has also announced its plans to increase the nation’s nuclear capacity by an additional Gigawatt by 2030 and extend the lifetime of the existing facilities in Koeberg by a further 20 years. A parallel plan proposes generating 33GW via solar and wind farms by the end of the decade. Whatever the outcome, power plant safety will remain an issue, and adequate training will continue to be the best way to achieve it.

That said, training new operators can also pose some challenges. Traditional classroom instruction is a highly effective method to introduce the theoretical aspects of energy production, whether by the combustion of fossil fuels or the use of fissionable isotopes. Visual aids are freely available to assist instructors and reinforce their words. However, learning how to control the various processes required to produce that energy is not something one can master from diagrams on a whiteboard. Nevertheless, power plant safety relies entirely on the practical competence of the facility’s operators and engineers. 

For decades, the only way for a new employee to gain that competence was to train on the job, observing whilst an experienced operator performed various tasks and repeating them under supervision when the opportunity arose. The method works to a degree, but it is time-consuming and carries an unavoidable element of risk. Furthermore, operators must be able to deal with various emergencies, but creating them for training purposes is hardly a viable option. Instead, power plant safety during practical training is assured when using realistic computer-generated simulations. This immersive teaching technology is the safest, most cost-effective and efficient means to familiarise trainees with the necessary routine and emergency procedures in conventional and nuclear facilities. 

Perhaps the most significant advantage of a training simulation is that learners are free to repeat a given action until it becomes a conditioned reflex. Mistakes are no longer a threat in a virtual workplace but a powerful learning experience. Learners can observe the consequences of an error with no risk they might compromise power plant safety in the process. 

The simulated learning industry has grown extensively, developing powerful training applications for a wide range of industries, including mining, construction, shipping, desalination, petrochemicals, defence, healthcare and, not surprisingly, power generation. In the latter category especially, there are now numerous simulations for training employees in the necessary procedures for operating coal and gas-fired plants and nuclear facilities.

SimGenics, an international leader in the development of training simulations, offers a selection of products to meet the needs of learners in South Africa’s electricity generation facilities. The developer’s lifelike, 3D workplace simulations reduce training time, increase retention, reduce costs and, above all, ensure power plant safety. 

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