Ep. 286: Dave Amerine, "Push It to Move It"
Creating A Safety-Conscious Work Environment (0:00-16:50)
David Amerine reflects on how his time in the Navy led to a broad career in the nuclear sector and shares the keys to building a safety-conscious work environment
Q: How did you get into the nuclear field and what were the first steps in your career?
A: When David Amerine graduated high school, he already had a strong interest in math and science as a result of the studies and teachers he had. He attended the United States Naval Academy where, in addition to the normal engineering degree, he also received math and nuclear physics degrees. It was natural for David to go into the U.S. submarine service, which are now all driven by nuclear power. During his seven years in the service, David got married and his two daughters were born. David left the Navy but stayed in the nuclear field, spending half of his career in the commercial nuclear power plant sector and the other half in the Department of Energy nuclear complex, which is primarily associated with the development of nuclear weapons materials and clean-up of contaminated sites as a result of the Manhattan Project. David led the construction, completion, and start-up of the Defense Waste Processing Facility (DWPF), the largest vitrification plant in the world whose mission is to immobilize highly radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project into glass which is then poured into stainless steel canisters, sealed, and hung in concrete vaults. Eight different times, David was brought in to help address management and operational issues at projects and plants. He was brought in as President of Nuclear Fuel Services, the sole provider for the Navy’s nuclear submarine and aircraft carriers, to resolve operational difficulties that caused the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to retract its license. The basic science for making tritium or handling nuclear waste or putting nuclear fuel in a commercial reactor is essentially the same. The management of people is the same in these situations. At the Millstone Nuclear Station, David instituted a safety-conscious work environment, an atmosphere in which any employee - no matter the rank - feels comfortable bringing up any issue, concern, or questions without retaliation and with a timely response from management. Trust is very important in all areas of the nuclear sector. The top plants in regards to capacity factor are those that are also the safest, showing that safety is good business. In many situations David entered in his career, the trust level was very low. The most important way to build trust is for leaders to be visible and accessible so employees have confidence talking to management. This also requires strong active listening skills. Safety must be the first priority, followed by quality, schedule, and cost. There are four ways to establish conductive operations: personal accountability, procedure compliance, technical inquisitiveness, and a willingness to stop in the face of uncertainty. Personal accountability is taking pride in one’s work. Procedure compliance combined with training brings the greatest chance for success. If there is a question about what the procedure requires, an employee should stop to get clarification. Technical inquisitiveness challenges employees to understand how what they’re doing may affect other workers or facilitate others in being successful.
Responsibilities of A Leader (16:50-31:25)
Lessons learned from years spent resolving management and operational issues at various nuclear facilities and how David led his teams through challenging obstacles
Q: Do you recall any times in which you had to improvise to get out of a challenging situation?
A: Some of David Amerine’s most telling lessons, whether in management, operations, or engineering, are from mistakes. Perfection is the number one enemy of progress. Understand the situation as best as possible and then make a decision to move forward. This participative management requires the leader to sincerely solicit input from the team and genuinely consider it, but ultimately that leader makes a decision to move forward. Success is shared throughout the team and failures are used as an opportunity to identify what went wrong and make improvements. Each of the eight facilities that David was brought in to address outstanding issues had its own fingerprint. These experiences led David to write the book “Push It to Move It” in order to share his experiences with others. Each facility had its own different challenges and usually multiple different factors leading to extremus. Millstone Nuclear Station in Connecticut has three different reactor designs built across three decades. These plants physically touch each other, yet there are three distinct cultures because they started up at different times. At this time, Millstone was part of Northeast Utilities nuclear fleet. The utility knew that Connecticut was headed towards deregulation, meaning they needed to be more competitive than if they were regulated. The management team was very focused on the bottom line and didn’t have time for ‘extraneous issues’ to improve the bottom line. This led to employees who brought up issues being mistreated by the employer. As a result, the management made it on the cover of Time magazine and a shutdown costing three years and $3 billion dollars. Some large nuclear projects, such as in the Department of Energy (DOE) Nuclear Complex, have budgets that are always under review, which can lead the project to have a moving goal line focused on accomplishments in a fiscal year. There are many books on management and project management, but David’s book focuses on the creation and nurturing of a safety-conscious work environment, vital to complex projects, especially the nuclear industry. As soon as David retired, he began working as a consultant until his wife was diagnosed with ALS. David was the primary caregiver for his wife during her last four years and stepped away from consulting. A little time later, he received a call from the Tennessee Valley Authority, an important utility with multiple operating nuclear plants, to request help dealing with similar worker mistreatment issues that David had dealt with at Millstone. This industry or culture is sometimes deemed to learn the same lessons over. The book “Push It to Move It” is about project management and people management, important ingredients to have a successful nuclear plant or a successful nuclear project.
Communication About Nuclear Energy (31:25-43:36)
David highlights some of the ways the nuclear industry has communicated well to share lessons learned, but makes a call to action for better public education on nuclear power
Q: How can the nuclear industry share near misses to improve lessons learned?
A: Three Mile Island led to the U.S. industry to create a self-monitoring entity called the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations (INPO). Internationally, the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) is modeled after INPO. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is modeled after the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, which has now devolved into the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy. These lessons are being shared. A problem somewhere is a problem everywhere. A lot of people in the United States do not understand nuclear power or nuclear energy and at first there was a tendency to connect it with a nuclear bomb. Both in the U.S. and internationally, the industry shares lessons learned after incidents as quickly and concisely as possible. Chernobyl was not abiding by the IAEA requirements or the suggestions of WANO. The Russians have invited people in to help make their nuclear endeavor safer that it was prior to Chernobyl. The generation of reliable electricity is a function of the standard of living worldwide. Nuclear power is by far the most reliable source of electricity based on capacity factor. While nuclear can consistently produce a capacity factor of 90-95 percent, coal is around 55%, and natural gas is somewhere between 35-40%. In the United States, there has never been one civilian harmed by nuclear power. None of the other sources of electricity can say that. In the U.S., the utilities do a good job to get their employees to be ambassadors of nuclear. However, the utilities and government have done a very poor job of educating the public. When David Amerine speaks at high schools, he asks where they think electricity comes from to power their schools and homes. Invariably, the answer is wind and solar. However, in Ohio, where David is from, wind and solar provide less than one percent of the electricity used. Wind and solar have a place in a mixed portfolio, but not for a broadbase, reliable source of electricity. These electricity sources have done a much better job of promoting themselves, which is what David is looking to do for nuclear. The next generation of reactors are going to be intrinsically safe in their design and much cheaper to build, without the redundant safety equipment and containment required in other designs.
Promises of the Next Nuclear Generation (43:36-59:50)
How new nuclear technologies and small modular reactors will upend the nuclear industry and provide a path towards nuclear as a broadbase, reliable electricity source
Q: Many large nuclear plants are still under construction. How can we save these projects to give a chance to the nuclear industry?
A: The utilities and governments need to partner to educate the public on the safety and cost savings of the new reactor designs. The wave of the future will be small modular reactors (SMR) that can be assembled in the factory and then disassembled and delivered to the construction site. A reasonable case could be made that these designs would not need as robust containment. David Amerine is particularly in favor of the liquid fluoride thorium reactor design. It has features that apply to some of the other liquid reactors, but there is an effort towards getting a licensing path because the licensing process has been developed for light water reactors. The design consumes most of the fission products that are developed and the cost of enrichment and fabrication are avoided. The liquid fluoride thorium reactor and other molten salt type reactors can be accommodated very easily to an SMR approach. These SMR’s can be expanded according to the demand without going through the relicensing of a new reactor. Safety will be much less expensive and the reactor construction time will be much quicker. The nuclear industry is not much more than 60 years old in producing electricity, making it a relatively new technology. Those lessons learned need to be applied for the benefit of everyone. The ongoing nuclear construction projects need the best project management possible. Design to build, build to test, and test to operate. Testers and operators need to be involved in the design phase, much earlier than that would normally be involved, to verify the design has good constructability, the start-up and periodic tests can be performed, and the plant can be easily operated and maintained. There are still people around who have gone through the initial phase of bringing reactors online. Corporate memory needs to be captured. When David was in charge of the Savannah River site, which had 26,000 employees at one point and covers 300 square miles, a problem arose that was resolved by an engineer that had been present during construction. He had a feeling for a part of the plant that was no longer accessible by humans and was able to discern the problem and how it should be handled. David personally thanked this individual and realized that, if this individual had already retired, the problem would have been much more difficult to solve. David led an effort to go around to this generation and get a stream of conscious dump of their experiences over the years to avoid losing the corporate memory before it walked out the door. He is getting involved in conversations concerning wind and solar power versus nuclear. David supports a mixed energy portfolio, but wind and solar cannot provide a reliable, broadbase electricity source and makes grid management very difficult as the source of electricity ebbs and flows through the day. He is involved in a state-level debate related to keeping nuclear power in Ohio and hopefully building more reactors in the States.