The events at 3 Mile Island in Pennsylvania, the Ukrainian reactor at Chernobyl and Japan’s Fukushima installation are ample proof of the potential danger of using nuclear fission to generate electricity. However, in October 2021, there were around 440 operational reactors in 30 countries, despite these worrying accidents. Together, they were providing about a tenth of the world’s electricity. Thanks to the stringent policies and training that ensure power plant safety, they do so without apparent incident.
The fears surrounding this form of energy are due mainly to its association with atomic weapons and overlook the tried-and-tested technology used to moderate the nuclear fission reaction. Surprisingly, the combined death toll resulting directly from these three events is much lower than expected. In the case of Chernobyl, which was the world’s worst nuclear disaster, approximately 50 deaths were reported in the months following the event. By contrast, there were just over 2,400 accidents in coal and oil-fired generating facilities from 1970 to 2008 in which five or more people died. Despite popular belief, fossil fuels as a heat source pose a much more significant threat to power plant safety than plutonium and call for strict operating protocols and will require reinforcement with appropriate training.
Burns, electric shocks, hazardous chemicals, fires and explosions are among the many threats that a plant’s operators must confront daily. Generally, observing the recommended procedures and wearing the appropriate protective clothing where indicated should be sufficient to protect them from most of the more common dangers in the workplace. Notices warning of hazards and the need for care are also helpful. However, ultimately, the depth and quality of operator training will play a major role in maximising power plant safety.
Supervisors and proto teams must undertake to ensure safety measures are observed. However, instructors are responsible for alerting new operators to the many potential dangers inherent in their jobs and how to avoid them. For most of the history of power generation, the conventional training approach has been to combine classroom lessons with on-the-job experience. The latter consisted mainly of allowing trainees to observe the instructor performing a task once or twice before attempting it in person. Such methods are slow and are only as effective as time allows. Experience shows that one can vastly enhance power plant safety by using lifelike simulations of the workplace to introduce trainees to the plant’s routine and emergency operating procedures.
One needs to look no further than the airline industry for proof that simulations are an effective training tool. The airlines invest millions in sophisticated computerised simulators as part of their pilot training programmes. As a result, statistics confirm that flying is now the safest form of transportation by far. Fortunately, generating companies need not invest such vast sums to achieve similar success. Training simulations for power plant safety will operate on a personal computer and can be created by the plant’s engineers with the help of a powerful yet affordable software package.
Repetition is one of the most effective ways to reinforce learning. However, there is seldom time for such luxuries in the workplace. Furthermore, training on the job also carries the constant risk of mistakes. Additionally, trainees have little opportunity to practice dealing with emergencies. Should the occasion arise, the best they can hope for is to observe an experienced operative in action. Simulations can enhance power plant safety by overcoming these three significant limitations of conventional practical training.
A computerised simulation aims to provide an immersive and interactive environment that will fully or partially duplicate the look and feel of operating in the live workplace. While trainees might need to initiate their actions with a mouse click rather than their hands, they can observe the visible results of their activity, whether right or wrong. The power of learning from one’s mistakes is undeniable. Simulations allow the learner a means to make errors and view the virtual consequences while posing no real risk to power plant safety. They also enable them to emulate possible emergencies and practice managing them, repeating the appropriate actions until they become a conditioned reflex.
Purchasing the simulation software will provide engineers with an intuitive user interface and an extensive library of objects and scripts. Using the latter, engineers can rapidly recreate a plant’s physical environment and add the functionality associated with the appropriate distributed control systems.