In late August, I attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Siemens’ plant addition in West Chicago, Illinois. The new facility will produce solar inverters, which turn DC power from photovoltaic modules into AC power that can be relayed to the power grid. I’ve been to this particular plant several times now and have always enjoyed its remarkable efficiencies as much as I’ve relished the conversations I seem to end up having each time I visit.
Following the tour of the new production and testing areas, a group of us gathered for lunch, and I had an interesting conversation with Mike Pound, CEO of Koontz-Wagner (www.koontz-wagner.com), an electrical contracting company in South Bend, Indiana. While we talked about the power-generation industry at length, we ultimately began discussing instant access to information. One of the other individuals at our table, in fact, shared a story of how a colleague in Washington, D.C., had felt the 5.9-magnitude earthquake on Aug. 23 and sent a text to a friend in New York, who received the message and then felt the aftershock seconds later. Yes, the text reached her before the aftershock.
Now that is instant information you can use.
Throughout the course of every day, we are inundated with information. Sometimes, it’s a routine email or voicemail message. Other times, it’s an alert that a catastrophic failure, often the result of poor maintenance practices, is imminent. Such was the case with the Fukushima Daiichi reactors this past March. Evidence now indicates that the meltdown might not have been the result of the tsunami, but a travesty waiting to happen because of a labyrinth of poorly maintained recirculation and cooling pipes and pumps. Apparently, an ounce of preventive maintenance is worth a millisievert of radiation.
The nuclear reactors’ demise is now believed to have been caused by the earthquake itself, rather than the ensuing aftermath. And while the alert reached plant operators before the tsunami did, it was too late to inspect pumps and pipes thoroughly and schedule proper repairs, not to mention rectifying discrepancies between blueprints and the actual piping.
It’s a shame that we continue to re-learn the value of good maintenance practices, whether they’re preventive, predictive or reliability-centered, through the horrible accidents that can occur when improper attention is given to a plant’s physical assets. And although the meltdown is a mesmerizing tragedy, it is not so much an indictment of the nuclear power industry as it is a wake-up call — no, not a wake-up call, but an air-horn blast in your face — reminding us of the importance of proper MRO execution.
Having a maintenance strategy in place isn’t enough. It requires execution of the program, a top-down commitment to the care of physical assets and employees who understand the significance of their duties.