Students’ Corner: Nuclear Fire Protection, A Student Starting Off

Posted: May 15, 2015 in Fire Protection
Tags: , , , , , ,

Last fall, I challenged the students in my ENFP 405/621 Structural Fire Protection engineering class in the Department of Fire Protection Engineering at the University of Maryland to compose blog postings related to their experiences in Fire Protection Engineering. This post kicks off an ongoing series of posts created by those very gifted students. Without further ado, I am pleased to present the first post in the series.

Nuclear Fire Protection, A Student Starting Off

by: Alex Chacinski

Alex C nuclear photo

Fire protection engineering sees its use in many fields. When you are new to the fire protection field, you are never really sure what it is you will be doing. Choosing a direction to take your fire protection engineering degree is difficult when all you hear is the opinions of others. As a student, all you have to go by is what you hear from professors and the occasional guest speaker. Some might say that code consulting is where the money is, or others might say fire research is the most interesting work to do. When you have minimal work experience and need that experience before you can truly carve out your own path, your best move is to take whatever job is given to you. Whether the job is something you like, or not, may not even be considered.

I found my first fire-related work in the summer of 2013 as a student intern, where I was fortunate enough to be assigned to a myriad of projects. Some work involved fire research or equipment testing, some involved modeling software, but the majority of my time was spent in the nuclear field. To give a bit of background about my experience with fire protection in the nuclear industry prior to this job, I would say I had as much experience as fire has experience burning under water. Regardless, I started the nuclear work: reviewing drawings, plant procedures, and creating massive spreadsheets to house data. It turns out my early work was part of a probabilistic risk assessment (PRA).  The plant data was being put into models to calculate the probability of a fire event seriously affecting the plant. Of course, nobody wants another nuclear plant fire crisis (we are looking at you Brown’s Ferry!). Before long, I was examining major plant equipment, measuring zones of influence, looking at spatial separations from conduits and cable trays, and calculating the fire severity in the event that some piece of equipment would ignite. I was looking through equipment databases and detailed drawings, learning everything I could about what I was doing. After some time though, I realized that I really had no idea what my work actually meant. I was focused on my spreadsheets and data crunching, and yet I did not even know what a nuclear power plant looked like in real life. What I did know however, was that I enjoyed the work and liked the path my early career was taking.

Fortunately, I was soon given the opportunity to do onsite PRA walk-downs. I was finally able to put a face to the name, or in this case, a visual to a number. After a quick flight and a night spent in a hotel, the team and I found ourselves at a nuclear plant. After some long security procedures, we were on our way inside to collect the information we needed to run our models. I quickly learned that nuclear plants were essentially huge machine jungles made of steel and concrete. Cable trays and conduits tangled through all the rooms like well-kept vines, and loud machines roared from room to room. Despite the overwhelming atmosphere, I was quick to learn. The equipment I was running fire calculations on finally had a face. I could now see how an electrical fire could start in an electrical panel. I could sense how the fire may be able to jump to a nearby cable tray. That fire could then burn the wiring to the main control room, and soon the plant could be having a reactor meltdown. Everything started to make sense. The work I was doing seemed to finally have purpose. I was far from a nuclear fire protection expert, but I was learning quickly and enjoying the experience.

Since then, I have worked on other nuclear jobs. Some also PRA related and some concerned with the transition from Appendix R requirements to NFPA 805 requirements. I have learned a lot about the nuclear field and feel comfortable doing that kind of work. I even prefer it over some other traditional fire protection engineer work. I am still a student, but now I feel like I have some good work experience under my belt. Going through school and starting a career is a long journey that everyone takes on their own. It is hard to know where you will end up or what work you will be doing. I certainly had no idea where I was going or that I would appreciate nuclear fire protection engineering work. Now, I am happy to say I found a corner in fire protection engineering that I enjoy. For any other young engineers, my advice is to keep trying new things. Who knows what part of fire protection engineering you will enjoy until you get the opportunity to try it?

  1. Ed Douberly ENFPE '79 says:

    HI Alex….your experience in the nuclear field is definitely unique but only because of the radiological aspects of the plant itself. I spent many years with Virginia Power working at North Anna and Surry Nuclear plants. I also served as the co-chair of the then EEI Nuclear Fire Protection Subcommittee and as Chair of the NEIL Engineering Advisory Subcommittee on Loss Prevention. I also took 2 ENNU courses as an ENFP student.

    Through all of this experience I am reminded that fire protection is fire protection. There is no nuclear fire protection but fire protection in the nuclear environment, which is distinguished by the presence of radioactive material. Other than that, there is noting that distinguishes it from fire protection in any other environment.

    I think that the opportunity that is most challenging i the app;action of performance based FP to the nuclear environment as per NFPA 805. I have not been involved in this area since the advent of 805 and only know the rigors of pre-805 prescriptive fire protection in the nuclear environment. The transition to 805 in the commercial nuclear environment is fairly new and I believe an excellent opportunity for those of us ENFP engineers that love PRA.

    Best of luck in the nuclear industry.


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