Training the nuclear industry’s next generation of workers

For more than 130 years, the Arizona Public Service Company (APS) has powered Arizona’s growth, prosperity, and innovation. Today, APS continues to be the state’s largest and longest serving electric utility, providing 2.7 million people with safe and reliable energy.
The company’s Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station (Palo Verde), located near Tonopah, Arizona is the largest source of carbon-free electricity in the United States, with 6,400 MW of generating capacity and one gigawatt of renewable energy. With more than 6,400 employees, APS is dedicated to ensuring a bright future for Arizona. Managing Aging Plants had the pleasure of speaking with one of these employees, Mr. John Backus, a Nuclear Training Instructor, responsible for valve service training for the valve service group at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station. He spoke with us about his current role as an instructor, the problem of part obsolescence and how that issue can be used to teach younger workers about adaptability.

Article by Candace Allison & Sarah Bradley

An impressive career history

Even though John has been working at the Palo Verde plant for approximately 33 years, he actually began his career in 1979 as an electrician wiring houses. When he became bored with fi shing wires he started working for Phillips Uranium in New Mexico before moving to South East Arizona and working in a large open-pit copper mine. It was in 1983 when there was a strike at the mine that John became aware of the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, which was just getting started and needed maintenance electricians, especially ones with previous experience working in the copper mine. After successfully passing the entrance test, John was hired and helped with the start-up testing for the nuclear power plant, which he thought was “a lot of fun.”

After 12 years working in that area, there was a change in management and he moved into the electric shop, eventually becoming team leader. At that time there wasn’t a separate Valve Services Group, but as an electrician he was able to work on both the mechanical and electrical aspects of valves, which he found really enjoyable. In 1990 the official Valve Shop was created, in order to have professionalism and consistency across the board and three years later the valve shop was made company wide and existed alongside the electric shop, mechanic shop, instrumentation & control (I&C) shop, and the HVAC shop. John said that it was at that point he moved to the valve shop, which he really liked. He was there for a long time before the training opportunity in the valve service shop opened up and he became the Valve Service Instructor.

From there he moved to safety and nondiscipline specific training and was busy constantly teaching the upwards of 700 people a year classes like FME conduct & maintenance, tagging & clearance, keeping up qualifications, etc. Not long ago, the Valve Service Instructor retired and John moved back into the valve service training and “really getting my feet wet again with it. I go to every outage to work with the guys in the valve shop, so I keep my qualifications up and then I go back and I use that opportunity to mentor as a training instructor,” he explained.

“They really rely on me coming back to them having that experience because we have a lot of new people. Many have retired so we now have a lot of smart, young workers but they don’t have the handson experience. Most us grew up at Palo Verde; this is my only nuclear power plant so it’s all I’ve ever known. I learned without all the complications that you have today. Today technicians are held to a higher standard. That’s why they rely on me to come back to the shop and work with them.”

Current role

John is responsible for providing valve service training for the entire Valve Service Group at Palo Verde. He does all the training and prepares all the documentation to maintain the training qualifi cations. A lot of his job involves writing lesson plans, teaching courses, and ensuring all the paper work is correct because there are regulatory observations with the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO). He provides training on all the ‘normal type of valves’ the plant uses whether it is a Target Rock valve, solenoid air-operated valve (AOV), motor operated valve (MOV), either electrical or mechanical, etc. He also covers refurbish inspection, testing, and troubleshooting. 

Twice a year he leads the Craftsmanship Training, which he calls ‘Just-in-time-training’. This session is held right before an outage and covers anything the group wants to review or go over before the outage. John said that he really enjoys this course because the technicians in the shops actually present a lot of the material but he oversees the session, prepares all the lesson plans, and ensures everything meets the specific SAT requirements.

When asked what a typical working day is like, he is quick to answer that his work weeks are often Monday to Thursday, with ten hour shifts. He begins most days with assessing what is going on in the plant trying to determine what upcoming work could be involved or if there are any problems that need to be solved. He then goes to the valve shop to work with the employees there. He will then observe their work and provide any feedback that he thinks would be useful. He confessed that the better part of most days is spent doing paperwork: making sure lesson plans are approved, that PowerPoint presentations are completed and approved by the leadership team and generally just making sure every aspect of the course is ready to go.

“Then there is the teaching component of my job,” explained John. “I teach anywhere from 20- to 40-hour classes depending on what the specific subject is. So I have to always maintain my qualifications as an instructor. I also have to be observed to ensure I’m teaching everything correctly and I have a lab observation too. In order to even become an instructor I had to go through the standard INPO approved training course. I don’t have a teaching degree. I come from the school of hard knocks. What I enjoy the most about my job is actually teaching. I love being at the front, I feel very comfortable in front of an audience. I also enjoy working with all the people in the different shops. I also enjoy working with the new generation of workers.

I love taking my knowledge and my experiences and incorporating all of that into the lesson plans.” But he clarified that this can also be a major challenge: making sure that his lesson plans adequately cover aspects that will help the workers while also meeting the fairly strict requirements of the SAT program. This is why after any class he teaches he circulates a feedback form so there is an element of post-training evaluation and he can incorporate any feedback into the next course. He doesn’t enjoy the administrative aspect as much as the actual teaching but he does realize its importance. John also finds it challenging trying to keep on top of current information and ensuring there are enough hands-on opportunities to his lesson plans. He has to try and provide enough equipment for his hands-on refurbish classes but sometimes the trouble is finding enough space to house everything.

The problem of obsolescence

Yet another challenge that John faces more and more these days is the problem of parts, especially valves, no longer being available. He stated, “Obsolescence is already becoming a really big issue for us. Things are wearing out and certain manufacturers are not reproducing the same parts. During the last couple of outages we were making some changes with the plant equipment because of the obsolescence of a certain piece of equipment, so we have to constantly learn more about this problem and adapt to it. We’ve had to do training on it because we all have to have a complete understanding of the problem and how we can combat it.”

He continued to explain that it is inevitable that younger workers are going to face the issue of dealing with older parts that are wearing out but no longer being made, so the only option is to make room for new parts, but that also involves adhering to the strict requirements of the nuclear industry. So not just any part can be used to replace the ones that are wearing out due to age. John admitted that things are going to have to change in the industry to make it easier for obsolete parts to be replaced.

Supporting future generations

Doing everything possible to ensure that the next generation of workers in the nuclear industry are adequately trained is perhaps the most important part of John’s job. He detailed that, “Training the new generation is a big deal. The kids these days are really smart because they get a lot of book learning but that isn’t nearly enough. They also have to see it, and experience it, in the plants. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we can bring history to them, a history that we’ve seen but they haven’t. 

The situation in the plant is different now compared to when I first started. We don’t see the same things today that we did 10 or even 20 years ago. For example, today things, like valves, are just wearing out and that part may now be obsolete. When I was younger the focus was on making everything run correctly and smoothly but now the focus has shifted to how products are wearing out. We have to recognize what exactly is wearing out and why. What is causing it and how can that be prevented? How can we use a new part to replace an old one that is no longer available? It all comes back to being able to understand a problem and learn from it.”

John believes that the future of the industry will be to find ways to become more efficient and streamlined in plant processes. When he first started in the business, he said that everyone followed exactly what the manufacturer recommended, even if it seemed repetitive or no value added. In recent years, he has noticed that there is a shift and that now workers are working with the manufactures and the engineering department to perform the correct amount of maintenance.

However, John also believes that this calls for even better training and support for the future generations so that all requirements can be met in terms of the equipment used in the plant, especially with part obsolescence becoming a larger and more persuasive problem. He believes that workers have to be ready to adapt and that will be easier the more training and experience they have. As long as John is still instructing he will try his best to make sure they will get all the knowledge, experience and support they need.


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