Judging from the number of blog posts that have been generated in the past 24 hours in response to the New York Times article titled In Finland, Nuclear Renaissance Runs Into Trouble, some people have never heard of the concept of learning curves or been involved in a project where everyone is inexperienced at the specific task they are assigned.
People who have been involved in the development of any new product or construction project have different attitudes, but most of them do not write anti-nuclear blogs or produce slanted articles in major news media outlets. For people who have been through the pain of a first of a kind (FOAK) and seen it through to work out the bugs and move into steady state production, is is never surprising that the first one takes at least 2 times as long as initially guessed and that the final cost is 20-200% larger than initially budgeted.
There are always lessons to be learned, mistakes to be made, and people to be either trained or fired. The reward comes once the learning has been accomplished and implemented; costs come down, schedules get shorter and more predictable, and people sometimes forget just how hard it was to get started.
For those of you who have never been involved in a large construction project, you can still understand the concept of learning curves if you simply think about ever time that you have developed a new skill or become proficient at a new task that applies already existing skills. If you make furniture in your garage, you will understand that refining your facility layout can improve your ability to produce quality work in a reasonable period of time. If you bake and decorate cakes, you will understand how important it is to practice your flowers and to learn the best order for filling your icing bags and keeping the tips clean and ready.
Now take those small examples and think about a construction project that requires the labor inputs from as many as 4,000 site workers speaking a variety of languages and building a reactor design that has never before been completed. Lay on top of that challenge a regulatory agency that has never inspected a project of similar magnitude and stir in a cadre of engineers who need to keep interrupting progress in order to tweak their new design. There is no surprise and no news here; the Olkiluoto cost and schedule challenges have been known for at least a year. In fact, if the first EPR project had gone smoothly and kept to its schedule, that would have been the man bites dog news story.
I am not blindly defending Areva nor making excuses. Not all FOAK projects get the opportunity to progress down a learning curve because the project backers either lose patience, run out of money or do a post project analysis that tells them there is just not enough margin for improvement to ever make that particular design a success. (I do not think that is the case here, by the way. It looks to me like Areva is well managed, has patient and experienced decision makers, and is taking good notes at its EPR construction sites so they can avoid making the same errors on the next plants that are built.)
There are reactions that are more interesting and telling than those of the anti-nuclear bloggers like Wasserman and Romm, two people whose resumes indicate more experience in spinning words than in laying concrete, welding pipes or producing any physical product.
For example, there are a number of consortia in Finland who are actively seeking permission to build the country’s sixth reactor; the technically educated and experienced people running those organizations are apparently not fazed at all by the cost and schedule challenges at Olkiluoto. The success that Areva has had in continuing to line up partners and customers even after the problems at Olkiluoto surfaced are also evidence that the technical community is viewing the lessons learned as a way to improve, not as evidence that the chosen path is incorrect.
My buddies who serve in the Marine Corps have a saying that is an appropriate mantra for repetition by decision makers associated with an FOAK project – “That which does not kill you makes you stronger.” Translating that for project managers, the mantra becomes – “That which does not bankrupt you makes you better the next time.”
One more thing – the concept of learning curves is one reason why I am a big proponent of smaller projects. They offer the opportunity for quicker learning and application of those lessons to the next project. They also offer the opportunity to scale the system so that the work force that does the learning can remain intact and supply a world wide market from fixed factory locations; that is much more difficult for site built facilities with a mobile work force.