Unlikely teammates29 May 2009
A unique alliance between Nebraska Public Power District and US nuclear power owner/operator Entergy has raised the performance of the single-unit Cooper nuclear power station. By Will Dalrymple
The performance of Cooper nuclear power station, near Nebraska City, Nebraska, has never been outstanding. In September 2008 its lifetime load factor – 66.8% – lagged about three percentage points, or 33 basis points, below NEI’s load factor average for BWRs (see NEI February, p32-37). But it is one of the most improved US plants. Over the past eight years, its performance has improved by 128 basis points.
Alan Dostal, corporate nuclear business manager for Nebraska Public Power District can date the turnaround of the plant’s performance exactly, to October 2003, when NPPD signed a deal with Entergy to bring in about 10 Entergy executives to manage the reactor and its 700 employees.
“We always did a safe and reasonable job operating the plant; there was never a real question about that,” Dostal says. “But Entergy helped us learn how to maximise the potential of the plant.”
In particular, Dostal cites the company’s ‘fleet experience’ – its familiarity operating lots of nuclear power plants, which, as a relatively isolated station, Cooper has never had. Entergy currently operates 12 nuclear power reactors in 10 plants.
Like the only other operating nuclear power station in Nebraska, Fort Calhoun, the Cooper nuclear power station relies on a relatively old single-unit reactor. The 764MWe GE Type 4 BWR started commercial operations in 1974; Omaha’s Fort Calhoun is a 478MWe Combustion Engineering PWR that started commercial operations in 1973.
Dostal says: “One thing [Entergy does] in a fleet is work with one another, and the problems understood in one plant become information for other plants in the fleet. We never had that kind of access as a single unit. We had INPO, but now we are effectively part of its fleet, and any problem we encounter could be a problem [already] encountered by others. There are big benefits. The nuclear industry is heavily proceduralised, and Entergy has got some good procedural-type approaches. We get access to procedures and processes, there are lots of benefits. The fleet perspective allows us to hone the practices of our station to the best practices of the larger group.”
Entergy’s culture, for example, has tighter discipline on equipment repair than previously. At Cooper, there have been equipment reliability issues. “Entergy has a zero tolerance of equipment safety problems, rather than fixing equipment so that it runs until the next day, or the day after. They are focused on long-term fixes. That puts a lot of emphasis on improving equipment.
“Our board directors approved more than $300m worth of new equipment, such as a low-pressure turbine, a generator: we rebuilt the generator and installed it last year, we replaced the feedwater heaters, we replaced the major air compressors and we replaced the digital feedwater controls; there were a lot of other projects. We completely rebuilt the intake on the Missouri River, which is the plant’s ultimate heat sink.
“The other part is that Entergy has been focused on running relatively short refuelling intervals. It is not that we are doing less, but we are doing a lot of maintenance very efficiently. [Entergy] has the right resources, and is doing all the planning to make this happen in short order. We used to have a 50-60 day turnaround; now it is in the mid-30s. We are getting another 25-30 days in the operating cycle; that really pushes the numbers up. It is the same people doing the work, but now they are learning how to do it more efficiently,” Dostal says.
He adds that the Entergy staff have integrated so well with the plant workforce that it can be difficult to tell the difference between the two. “They are seamlessly integrated with the staff, working for the betterment of the plant,” Dostal says. Entergy has “done a nice job of integrating the management with a lot of talent on site.”
In a telephone interview, Entergy’s senior vice president of nuclear operations, John Herron, says that the most important factor in the partnership is not Entergy’s knowledge of processes, but a trusting relationship.
Herron says that rolling out fleet expertise through standard business practices is ‘not that difficult’ for Entergy. “Probably the more difficult issue is integrating our management team with the rest of the workforce. That’s a harder issue, that is something about developing trust and a relationship with the workforce. It is an excellent workforce, with a strong midwestern work ethic, and they want to do a good job, and make it into a top-running facility. If managers have credibility, if [the workers] can trust them to be doing the right thing for them as individuals at the facility, you can easily integrate and accomplish those tasks.”
Later on, Herron adds: “It is one thing to bring in managers, expertise and processes to improve performance. [But we also] need the support of the board, and funding, and overall trust and confidence. They have never wavered in that area. That is why this has been successful.”
Although Cooper’s chief nuclear officer has been an Entergy employee since 2003, other Entergy managers vary with the needs of the station. Herron says, “If we need to work on the emergency plan, operations, maintenance, the general manager’s corrective self-assessment programme, if there is a weakness, we’ll bring some strength, some expertise to strengthen it up. What is more important, we are starting to develop individuals so we don’t have to have every single Entergy staff member there.”
The NPPD-Entergy relationship would appear to be unique. Nebraska law prevents power generating utilities from being privately owned. Although Entergy does offer services for other plants, such as decommissioning studies or licence renewal applications, it does not manage anyone else’s station, according to Herron. Nor does Herron know of any other public-private partnerships of this sort. “I have heard talk that some of our competitors would do this, but there has been no action. Most of them would prefer to acquire and own their own power station. And we would too, to some extent. In this particular case, this works well.”
Under the terms of the deal, the Entergy staff are employed under a support services contract, Dostal says. The contract includes compensation to Entergy staff for their costs, a component for performance incentives, plus other confidential elements, according to Dostal.
Herron says that the partnership is an ‘interesting concept’ for Entergy. When asked what Entergy gets out of it, he replies: We make some money on the business, and also improve our reputation. This helps in future opportunities, whether managed services or acquisitions.”
The Entergy contract runs until 2014, which, fittingly, is when the station’s current licence runs out. Dostal is confident that it will receive a 20-year licence extension. “In the coming carbon-restrained world, the best days of Cooper are ahead of it.”
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