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Paul Scicchitano

Quality Insider

Tough Economic Times?

Consider going nuclear

Published: Wednesday, October 21, 2009 - 05:00

There’s one class trip that stands out in my mind to this day. It wasn’t so much the thrill of missing a day in our suburban Philadelphia all-boys school—although that was definitely high on my list for wanting to visit Pennsylvania’s state capital in the first place.

No, it was really the fact that fate had put us there at all—within hours of the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history that just so happened to be unfolding at nearby Three Mile Island—only about a dozen miles away.

Fast forward to 2009, during one of the worst economic meltdowns of our time—combined with present day fears over carbon emissions—and the nuclear power industry suddenly holds the promise of a return to economic prosperity and greener energy for a growing number of small- to mid-sized companies that are hoping to become part of the industry’s long-awaited resurgence.

Frankly, the whole nuclear resurgence strikes me a little like waking up from a coma to discover that mashed potatoes can unclog your arteries. But if your company is thinking about making a move into nuclear, you’d be wise to do your homework on the quality requirements.

“We expect that by 2016 there will be 75,000 new hires in the nuclear industry,” declares Mitchell Singer with the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) in Washington, DC. "It’s been a catalyst for suppliers of various different components.”

A major industry conference organized by the Nuclear Procurement Issues Committee (NUPIC) in June drew about 500 attendees, many of them new to the industry. “About half of them had never been to a NUPIC meeting. They were there investigating the possibility of getting involved in the nuclear industry,” observes James Highlands, a nuclear quality consultant, who has spent decades assisting companies in meeting the industry’s rigid quality standards.

If your company is wondering how to break into the nuclear supply chain, consider this:

Unlike traditional manufacturing environments, which rely extensively on the widely used ISO 9001 quality standard published by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the nuclear industry assures quality among suppliers principally through five sets of requirements published by the U.S. government, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME):

  • Title X Part 50 Appendix B of the Code of Federal Regulations.
  • Title X Part 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations.
  • ASME NQA-1.
  • ASME Section III.
  • ANSI N45.2.

 

Experts tell me that there is a particular need for fabrication and manufacturing suppliers, as well as a demand for testing laboratories and nondestructive examination and distribution centers.

“This is a project. This is something that will take a year or two to get into compliance,” cautions Highlands, who sits on the ASME committee for nuclear certification and on the working group on quality assurance, certification, and stamping (SG-GR) (BPV III U.S.) in addition to being a certified nuclear lead auditor to NQA-1/ANSI N45.2.23. “There are a set of absolute requirements and you must meet those absolute requirements.”

Nathan Patton, quality manager with James Tool Machining and Engineering of Morganton, North Carolina, has observed firsthand the effects of the recession on his company’s traditional customer base.

As a result, James Tool has reduced its head count slightly from 115 in 2008 to less than 90 today and the company is looking to expand beyond automotive, health and safety, and other markets in which it has operated in the past.

"A lot of those markets are flat and are going to be flat probably through 2010,” Patton explains. “With all of the focus on energy and all of the new applications for nuclear plants, there’s an expectation in the market that nuclear is going to be strong for at least the next 10 to 15 years. In our minds, we have capability to provide a service to manufacturers of nuclear components.”

Having achieved certification to the ISO 9001 quality standard, Patton says his company is now investigating the steps needed to become NQA-1 compliant. “We want to get into product manufacturing in a production setting. The only way we can do that, from what we’re hearing from the customer base, is to become NQA-1.”

Florida Power and Light (FPL) has responded to the shortage of qualified workers in its state by partnering with local colleges and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) to develop a "win-win" nuclear apprentice training program, according to FPL Group's chief nuclear officer, Mano Nazar.

"In just two years, we have hired or promoted 72 graduates of this program at our St. Lucie and Turkey Point plants," Nazar explains. "We are currently in the process of attempting to replicate this program with industry and college partners in other areas around the country where we have nuclear power plants."

Singer adds that his organization has also presented several workshops around the United States to assist potential suppliers in making the transition to nuclear.

By all accounts the opportunity could be worth the effort. A total of 13 energy companies have submitted 16 license applications for up to 26 new reactors. It is unclear whether all 26 will be built, but Singer anticipates that four to six reactors could conceivably be built between 2016 and 2018.

“There’s a lot of excitement among these companies to try to get into the game,” Singer acknowledges.

Hopefully it won’t take another 30 years before I can write a column on the resurgence of mashed potatoes.

Discuss

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Paul Scicchitano