Charged Up! Ontario Power Generation's Pickering nuclear power facility keeps electricity flowing
Located on the edge of Lake Ontario just east of downtown Toronto, PEM’s 2011 Maintenance Award winner is Pickering Nuclear — one of the world’s largest nuclear generating facilities, right here in Canada. The massive plant has six operating CANDU (Canadian Deuterium Uranium) reactors, and all together, the station has a total output of 3,100 megawatts.
There are people here 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” explains Jim Whyte, director of work management at Pickering Nuclear. “I find the ebb and flow of people in and out of here to be amazing.”
It takes quite a large, talented team to keep a facility of such size operational. He says there are more than 900 employees in maintenance alone and another 600 in operations at the Pickering site.
Additionally, it takes a large numbers of jobs and a schedule to keep everything running as it should. “We schedule about 2,500 maintenance tasks per week for our online schedule,” Whyte continues. “And during outages, we have a task rate of somewhere between 200 and 250 tasks per day on the shutdown unit.
“Keeping all that scheduled … and making sure work is ready is a full-time job for people on the site.”
Ken Sutton is the manager of work control at this location. His department, working with all other departments, coordinates timely identification, screening, scoping, planning, scheduling and execution of all work necessary to maximize the availability and reliability of the station equipment and systems. It’s a big responsibility, and the company tracks its completion rates in order to grow and improve from week to week.
“We measure this every week and we have trend graphs and 13-week rolling averages,” he says. “And after every week we have what’s called a T+1 meeting where the whole group sits down with our metrics and talks about and learns from the issues of the previous week.” From that point, they take actions and make corrections.
It’s time well spent. This site’s reliability will be even more critical for the next eight years as Ontario undergoes a nuclear power makeover.
A Critical Juncture
Nuclear represents nearly 50 percent of OPG’s total production and over half of Ontario’s electricity generation. In 2011, the Ontario government began to implement its Long-Term Energy Plan, recognizing the need to build new nuclear units at the Darlington site, to undergo the mid-life refurbishment of the units at the Darlington station and to invest in the continued operation of Pickering — until 2020.
Summer 2011 marked 40 years of generation for Pickering, and due to its age, it is now operating toward an end of life that’s planned for around 2020. Complicating matters, before Pickering is taken off line for good, its power will be needed to keep the province flush with electricity as the 22-year-old four-unit Darlington station undergoes a unit-by-unit refurbishment process starting in 2016.
In a speech, Tom Mitchell, president and CEO of Ontario Power Generation, said, “All eyes will be on us to make sure we get it right.”
In February 2010, Ontario Power generation (OPG) announced it would proceed with the planning for the refurbishment of the Darlington station. The decision came after the positive outcomes of initial studies on the plant’s condition and continued strong safety and operating performance. Post-refurbishment, the station would operate for an additional 25 to 30 years. OPG’s success depends on all its departments working together. As a corporate mission, OPG says all its power sources must demonstrate strong project management expertise by delivering outages and projects safely, on time and on budget.
One of the people seeing Pickering through this transition process is Whyte, who has been working at this facility on and off for around 30 years. “Pickering is preparing to make up lost power … by ensuring that the six units we have operating are operating as reliably as possible. We have a target forced-loss rate — which is the period of time when we’re not available — of less than five percent by 2015. And we plan to achieve that production rate by investing in the plant, ensuring that our preventive maintenance work gets done, that our outages are executed on time with the scope that we intend, and that we complete maintenance on major plant components.”
Tammy Mullins, a maintenance specialist, says having all departments — operations, engineering and maintenance — working as a team is necessary to do the job right. “We all need everybody’s support to complete all the tasks, whether it’s a scaffold, whether is insulation removal, whether it’s engineering support,” she says. “We’re very strong team players here, and it shows in the pride we show our plant and in our equipment,” she adds.
In order to get all potential issue or concerns on the table, they hold work control meetings. “We look at the plan for parts holds, we look at the plan for system configuration and we make sure it’s sequenced and scheduled properly,” and they go through every task, work together, bring issues forward and get them settled in the room. It can mean deferring work, changing work or cutting work for other purposes.
For an example of facilitating communication between departments, technical engineer/officer Heather Au — the facility’s engineering preventative maintenance single point of contact — acts as a facilitator between the maintenance, operations and work-control organizations and engineering.
Daily, she interfaces with work control to ensure the preventive maintenance program is being executed as planned. “There are hiccups along the way, and that’s where I come in, interfacing with maintenance and engineering services, to see what we can do to get the work done.”
Being able to problem-solve issues between departments demonstrates teamwork, and Mullins recounts once success story when they had an issue changing the lights over a pool where all the fuel from the reactor building is stored.
“What my group had to do was to build a scaffold on top of the crane in order to get to the lights,” she explains. “There was an issue with the scaffold because the engineers needed the scaffold to approve the tie-off points (and they couldn’t go up there without a scaffold), and we couldn’t build the scaffold because we needed the tie-off points.” The groups had several “challenge” meetings and finally came up with a path forward, so the job was done safely, on time and the lights were replaced.
“That was an example of engineering and maintenance working together, working through challenges to get work done.”
Safety is Paramount
Donning earplugs, safety glasses, protective shoes and hard hats, we toured one of the incredibly impressive and noisy turbine buildings. The massive structure, which is approximately 382 metres long, 54 metres wide and 45 metres high, contained four turbine generators, each with a single shaft rotating at 1,800 rpm. Unable to approach the operating turbine for safety reasons, we stood beside one of the turbine replacement blades. Next to this imposing, spiraling helix of metal, we were dwarfed in comparison — and it dawned on me that this is no any ordinary plant.
Safety was the key consideration that guided the design and construction of the station. The CANDU system includes several ways to safely shut down reactors, and in the unlikely event of a serious incident, the multiple barrier safety system will prevent any harmful release of radiation.
At Pickering, safety and reliability aren’t separate — they are related. All the operations staff, Whyte says, understands that maintenance is directly equated to reliability and reliability is directly equated to safety. “Safe production is our thing. We won’t run if it’s not safe. And if there’s any question about it whatsoever, we shut the units down.
“The key to avoiding that situation,” he stresses, “is maintenance.”
Au reiterates the importance of this mindset, explaining that safety is truly their No. 1 priority — and that includes employee, plant and public safety.
“Employees are fully trained and qualified for their roles and responsibilities,” she says. “On a day-to-day basis, all jobs — big and small — begin with a pre-job brief to discuss potential hazards on the job-site, to discuss error-likely situations, to familiarize with the task at hand, to discuss expected results and back-out conditions, and to review any questions, issues, or previous experience with similar work.
“Bottom line: safety is never compromised in anything we do because we don’t want employees getting injured.”
Whyte adds that they assign “criticality codes” for their equipment. They are coded one through four in terms of their importance to production or safety. Code 1 and Code 2 work is treated with the highest respect: “We don’t delay the preventative maintenance, we execute the work on time and we put a lot of effort and energy into making sure the work is ready to go.”
So for now, OPG will plan for the continued operation of the Pickering station over the next decade to ensure electricity needs are met during the Darlington refurbishment. In the mean time, the province’s citizens have one large maintenance team to thank for helping keep everything running smoothly. Because a lot depends on them.
“We’re very proud of where we work,” Sutton says. “We work hard. And to be recognized, that means something to us. We’re proud to show our facility off.”