Nuclear Plant Staffing Is A Symptom, Not A Solution

We often tell our clients that “staffing is a symptom, not a solution.” When we say this, we mean that your nuclear plant’s current staffing levels reflect a combination of your:

Management Decisions

Organizational model

Organizational culture

Assessing staffing levels generates a snapshot of your current situation. Like a medical exam, it will identify the symptoms of the organization’s challenges; those symptoms point to the root cause, which can help in prescribing a “cure.” In this case the “cure” might be a change that promotes efficiency and/or improves performance.

We assess nuclear plant staffing in 46 functional areas for our clients. Some examples of staffing drivers for consideration are Operations, Maintenance, and Engineering – what we call “the tip of the spear” because this is where the critical tasks are completed.

Common Causes of Understaffing In “Tip of the Spear” Job Functions

In over 30 years of conducting nuclear plant staffing assessments, we have seen that there are minimum staffing levels for specific work functions. Trying to operate at lower levels requires an eventual recovery with additional costs and regulatory burdens. Low staffing levels typically reflect either a) underinvestment in O&M budgets or b) lack of attention to personnel pipelines:

Operations – Our definition for “Operations” includes all on-shift Ops personnel (i.e., the crew complements). If these staffing levels are lower than they should be, either there are insufficient budgets to support the labor costs, or the operator pipeline (those in initial operator training and those in a license class) has not been sufficiently staffed. This latter condition can be very challenging because of the long lead time requirement needed for fully trained operators. If you have low operator staffing today, and an insufficient pipeline, it will take at least two years to recover. In that time, you will have literally lost eyes and ears in the plant, increasing the risk of poor plant performance, and potentially a degradation of your Nuclear Safety Culture.

Maintenance – For discipline maintenance craft (Mechanical, Electrical, and I&C), lower staffing levels may be also a reflection in under-investment in the plant, from either an O&M or a Capital perspective. It may also be a lack of pipelines (work force planning) in terms of apprentice programs, or too few maintenance training instructors. We often see low maintenance staffing supplemented with contractors. This is a short-term solution, and should not be considered a cure. Understaffing in maintenance craft typically leads to increased backlogs, lower equipment reliability, longer forced outages, and longer scheduled outages.

Engineering – Lower engineering staffing levels often reflect lower Capital budgets, but are sometimes the result of a “Maintenance” or a “Cost” Culture . There are a handful of Engineering and Engineering support functions (Design, Plant, Technical, Procurement, Programs, Reactor, etc.). Understaffing in Engineering often erodes control of the Design Basis of the plant, and diminishes equipment reliability. It can also lead to lower operating margins, which increases risk, and risks increased regulatory scrutiny.

Common Causes of Overstaffing in “Tip of the Spear” Job Functions

High staffing levels typically reflect inefficient processes, which therefore require more people to complete the work. Here are some examples of issues that can drive staffing levels higher:

Operations – While we have seen very few examples of “over staffed” Operations crews, we have seen high staffing levels in Operations Support. These types of personnel typically include dedicated operations procedure writers, scheduling coordinators, technical specialists and Ops training coordinators. When staffing levels are too high for these activities, it is a result of inefficient, and generally less effective, processes. We have even seen higher organizational staffing within an Operations organization because they were duplicating some of the scheduling work being performed by the Work Management organization.

Maintenance – High staffing in Maintenance disciplines can result from one of several common conditions:

Challenges within the Work Control process – Issues with the effectiveness or quality of work package plans, and/or poor coordination across the many organizations that prioritize, plan, and support the execution of actual maintenance work in the field.

A “Maintenance Culture” – Too great a focus on maintenance and an overly aggressive approach to both corrective and preventive maintenance. The consequence is typically higher system performance, but higher overall costs come with it. Additionally, outage durations tend to increase as more maintenance scope is added due to this cultural orientation. Plants with this cultural orientation also tend to apply higher levels of maintenance contractor support (see below).

Consequences of an “Engineering Culture” – This cultural approach has a secondary effect on maintenance staffing. Engineering-driven cultures typically generate a lot of projects and modifications work, which increases the work load on maintenance, often resulting in increases in maintenance staffing.

Insufficient reliance on the FIN Team – Fix-It-Now (FIN) teams can provide a great productivity boost to a maintenance organization by completing shorter duration or less complex work that requires little external support. We have seen many plants with very small FIN teams that are unable to harness their full potential. Effective FIN teams must be large enough, and have the right skills and authorities: At least one senior operator, a supply chain representative, one or more system engineers, several mechanics, several electricians, several I&C technicians, and for a nuclear plant, at least one radiation protection technician. It becomes easy to see that an effective FIN team will have a dozen or more people.

Over reliance on Maintenance Contractors– For the many sites who have experienced the “Contractor Contempt Cycle ” you already understand this issue. We have seen examples of a maintenance organization using contractors when they were understaffed to help make up the difference. However, once things got back to normal, the contractors were retained because they were good, efficient, and effective. The only problem is that they were no longer needed. When the combined size of the employee maintenance craft and contractor maintenance craft becomes too large, all of the same problems emerge that are seen with overstaffing in maintenance.

Engineering – High engineering staffing levels are normally a reflection of higher Capital budgets, an Engineering Culture, or a lack of sufficient individual expertise (i.e., a younger workforce). Higher engineering staffing also tends to have a ripple effect on other organizations. Engineers both create work and require support. The more of them there are, the more support is needed from organizations like Human Resources, IT, and Document Control. Additionally, more management and administrative personnel will also be required. Not every additional engineer will generate increases in these other organizations, but enough certainly will. Engineering can also utilize large numbers of contractors. Many of our clients have migrated to an Engineer of Choice (EOC) approach to centralize their external support. While this can be inherently efficient, that will only last as long as the combined internal and external engineering work does not grow too large. When it does, costs increase, management becomes more challenging, projects increase in number and scope, etc.

The Organizational Design Drives Staffing Levels

The design of an organization can also drive staffing levels. A design that is too vertical (has too many layers of management) creates additional levels between the individual contributors who perform the work, and those in senior management. Typically, these organizations have smaller spans of control, which creates the need for more supervisory and management positions. This results in higher overall staffing.

An organizational design that is very wide (has too few layers of management) will face the challenges of leaders not having enough expertise to manage the greater range of expertise that reports to them. While this will normally result in lower overall staffing, it typically is short-lived due to lower levels of organizational performance. The resulting required recovery becomes expensive, time consuming, and distracting from the core mission. Optimizing both layers of management and spans of control can both improve performance and help optimize head counts.

Like A Human Body, Your Organization Requires Balance

A power plant can be likened to a human body. It is a system of systems. There are some mission critical systems, without which all the other systems fail (the brain, heart, and lungs in the body; the reactor or boiler, the primary cooling system, the heat transfer system, and the turbine/generator in a power plant).

The right inputs must go in, and the wrong inputs must be avoided. While imperfections in the inputs and in the systems can be tolerated to some extent, there are limits before one or all of the systems will fail.

In the body, sensory systems seek out, find, and correct imperfections (the immune system). In a power plant, most of that immune system is people. Without enough, the systems will degrade and may fail. With too many, other problems arise. The solution is balance. How balanced is your plant’s immune system?

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