Turnover, flawed exams led to Plant Vogtle reactor licensee failures

The loss of experienced training staff and poorly prepared licensing tests contributed to an unusually high failure rate last year among Plant Vogtle’s 2011 class of reactor operators, according to company officials.


“We see this as an isolated case,” said Tom Tynan, Southern Nuclear’s Plant Vogtle vice president, who briefed U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission staffers on the situation during a Wednesday meeting in Atlanta.

Ten new operators were tested last April, but only three passed and received licenses, according to NRC records. The candidates had undergone two years of training to operate the plant’s existing Units 1 and 2.

Tynan said Southern Nuclear’s root cause investigation identified turnover among the most experienced exam development professionals as a leading cause.

“Management underestimated these losses and did not adequately compensate for this loss of training experience,” he said, in a meeting made accessible to The Augusta Chronicle by teleconference. “Retirees were replaced with new personnel, but the experience level was not the same.”

The absence of experienced exam developers, he said, led to the development of sub-standard exams.

“What happened was, we submitted exams to NRC that were below standards, and when we got that exam back from NRC, it needed considerable work to bring it up to standards,” he said.

By the time the exams were corrected, there was only a short time before the applicants’ test date, and “a decision was made by management not to revalidate the exam and to administer the exam to students at that time.”

Although most of them failed, the problem involved the tests and not the prospective operators. “The students were well prepared,” he said.

The company has since implemented a series of corrective actions, including recruitment of more experienced personnel and frequent program reviews by certified examiners and industry experts to assure that all future exams meet or exceed insustry standards.

The 2012 class of prospective licensees, he added, will begin their operating tests Monday, with final written exams tentatively scheduled for April 20.

That class has 22 applicants, including six of the seven who failed the 2011 exam.