A nuclear power generating station, located in the U.S. Midwest region, is able to produce enough energy to power more than 2 million average American homes. With two reactor units, the power station follows a ‘defense-in-depth’ design with redundant safety layers and is committed to supporting its employees and the local community. As part of the heavily regulated nuclear power industry, the generating station must perform mandated outages every two years, for refueling and maintenance.
The refueling outages, which typically last slightly less than three weeks, are resourceintensive and involve the intricate coordination of tens of thousands of work tasks. To prepare for this critical and exhaustive process, the power plant’s standard workforce swells at least 50% during the outage period. And because the plant cannot generate power during the shutdown, there’s tremendous incentive to complete the required tasks and get back online as quickly as possible.
“Effective communication during these outage periods is vital both for efficiency — which translates directly into costs — and for the safety of our workers,” says the radiation protection manager. “We chose our 2014 refueling outage to enact a wide-scale implementation of the wearable, hands-free Vocera Communication Badge, and we are very pleased with the results.”
Overcoming Communications Challenges
To efficiently and safely manage the thousands of workers performing tens of thousands of tasks during the refueling outage, instant, highly synchronized communication is paramount. The plant tried other communications devices in the past, but none were optimal. Landlines, pagers and handheld radios are not feasible for all the workers at the plant, and cell phones are prohibited because their operating frequencies can have a detrimental impact on the plant’s equipment.
In previous outages, remote communication was provided via bulky radio units having two large antennas, mounted on a belt pack and with a hardwired headset connection. The radio’s design proved cumbersome for workers wearing protective clothing, and when used in tight spaces, the communications units were prone to damage and failure.
“We were looking for a device that was user-friendly, portable and flexible, and the Vocera Badge — because of its sleek size, functions and capabilities — is suitable for the wide variety of communications applications we require,” says the radiation protection manager. “The wearability and hands-free operation of the Vocera Badge is especially valuable for workers in restrictive radiological spaces, to avoid contaminating themselves or pieces of equipment through touch.”
Communications Efficiency Saves $1 Million+ During Refuel Outage
The generating facility itself is very large, and real-time instant communication throughout all areas of the plant is important both to manage the radiological conditions during the refueling outage processes and to establish the radiological controls necessary for safe work. Conditions can change quickly during the complex refueling processes, and it’s vital that all teams be able to update one another promptly, especially for processes deemed critical-path or that might develop into critical-path tasks.
“Vocera enables my staff to contact me immediately with any changes in conditions, and allows me to broadcast the necessary controls and instructions immediately,” says the radiation protection manager. “Vocera’s push-to-talk function makes it easy to redirect resources to address emerging activities, without having to physically track people down or use hands to operate communications devices. Without a doubt, Vocera has helped our workers be successful in meeting their scheduled work activities.”
Greater efficiency through enhanced communications enabled the plant to complete all its outage tasks, including the critical-path processes, in 18 days—a full day faster than usual— and get back online sooner.
“Cumulatively, the increased efficiency we achieved while using Vocera allowed us to save at least 6,000 person-hours of labor,” says the radiation protection manager. “This labor savings, combined with the positive effect of completing the outage in less time and generating electricity sooner, yielded a 4X return on our Vocera investment after only that first outage.”
Efficient Communications Reduces Radiation Exposure by 25%
During refueling outages, nuclear plants track two key radiological indicators: collective radiation exposure, or how much exposure the workforce receives during the shutdown period; and personal contamination events, or incidents where individuals get loose-surface contamination on either their skin or clothing.
“During this outage period we had the best performance ever for both radiological indicators,” says the radiation protection manager. “We reduced collective radiation exposure by approximately 25% over our previous best, and we reduced the number of personal contamination events to what I would call industry-excellent performance — and 70% below our previous best performance. I believe that the timely communication within the radiation protection organization enabled by Vocera was a major contributor to those results.”
“It’s generally accepted that each rem of exposure is the equivalent of approximately $15,000,” says the radiation protection manager. “We performed our most recent outage for 20 rem less than any previous outage, and Vocera was certainly a major factor in that achievement. So that’s another $300,000 in savings that Vocera helped us to attain.”
The nuclear plant will continue to rely on Vocera for day-to-day communications during non-outage times in all areas of the facility that have good Wi-Fi coverage, which includes the maintenance and operations disciplines, radiation protection, chemistry, engineering and the senior leadership team.
“In non-outage times, Vocera is also an incredibly effective tool for timely, efficient communication,” says the radiation protection manager. “One of the most important things for us, during both outages and normal operations, is to operate safely and efficiently. Vocera is instrumental to that objective.”