SHELL BLUFF, Ga. — A few miles beyond the clamor of nuclear construction at Plant Vogtle, Shawn Wolfgong and four classmates spend long hours in a silent, windowless room.
There are 16 huge computer screens – and 28 smaller ones – all pulsing with information used to operate the nation’s newest fleet of commercial power reactors.
“It’s highly automated – a lot different from the legacy plants,” said Wolfgong, who came to Plant Vogtle’s unusual training campus after a 20-year Navy career aboard nuclear submarines.
He and 28 fellow trainees are using replicas of the Westinghouse AP-1000 reactor control room to learn and understand the technology behind the world’s newest reactor design.
The new units, under construction at Vogtle and at SCANA’s V.C. Summer Plant in South Carolina, are vastly different from reactors of yesteryear – and so are the training and licensing programs, said Greg Crosby, a Southern Nuclear training coordinator.
“The role of the operator has changed tremendously,” he said. “Compared to the legacy plants, there is not as much manual technology, but they have to be prepared – if things don’t work as planned – to do things manually.”
By the time Vogtle’s two new units are ready for commercial operation, Southern Nuclear expects to have more than 100 operators trained and licensed.
To prepare for the programs, Southern Nuclear sent 24 employees to Cranberry Township, Pa., for a six-month course to become certified as instructors.
“We’ve basically trained the trainers,” Crosby said.
Travis Mays, the training center’s operations instructor, said the AP-1000’s passive safety system is one of the major differences from previous designs. Older reactors require electrical power and pumps to provide emergency cooling water, while the AP-1000 design has 785,000 gallons of water stored above the unit that can be deployed by gravity alone.
Once training at the simulator and nearby classrooms has been completed, the prospective operators must also take a series of exams to quality for a Nuclear Regulatory Commission license authorizing them to operate the reactors.
Under NRC rules, Southern Nuclear must have at least 45 licensed operators to begin Unit 3 operations, and 30 more before Unit 4 can become operational.
Southern Nuclear’s trainees, along with those trained on a similar simulator at SCANA’s V.C. Summer plant, will be the first group in the U.S. to seek federal operator licenses for the AP-1000.
The Vogtle 3 and 4 training program, which has 29 candidates, was officially commissioned as a branch member of the National Academy of Nuclear Training.