This Engineer’s Job Is to Keep Arkansas Nuclear One Safe

Every workday, Sarah Ansari strives to ensure that the nuclear power plant where she works is operating safely. The IEEE member is an electrical design engineer at Arkansas Nuclear One, in Russellville.

The pressurized-water plant provides electricity to the majority of the state’s businesses and residents and to customers beyond Arkansas.

“Our nuclear plant is like a river that meets the ocean, supplying power to the larger electric power grid that provides electricity across North America,” Ansari says. “These systems are robust, and we can’t make mistakes.”

The risk with any nuclear facility, of course, is that if it isn’t managed properly, radiation leaks could endanger employees and people living nearby.

Ansari’s responsibilities include ensuring the plant is operating safely, complying with regulations, and using up-to-date technology.

Her work at the plant, her academic research, and her involvement in IEEE have helped Ansari build her community within the global nuclear industry.

A day in the life of an electrical design engineer

Since childhood, Ansari says, she knew that she wanted to work in physics or in power engineering. She was inspired by her parents, who worked in biology, and by her reading of physics journals and engineering and science magazines.

Ansari entered the field of power engineering during her final semester as a Ph.D. student at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock, when she interned at Arkansas Nuclear One.

“While I was a graduate student, I was also this company’s customer,” she recalls, “and now I was going to be working there behind the scenes.”

U.S. nuclear power plants use reactors to create heat that boils water and produces steam. The steam is routed through the reactor system to spin large turbine blades that drive magnetic generators to produce electricity.

During her internship, Ansari says, what stood out to her most was the plant’s emphasis on discipline and safety.

“I was amazed at the safety precautions the company takes, especially for the employees’ personal safety,” she says. The precautions extended to mundane matters: Policies prohibit using cellphones while walking the halls, for example, and require employees to stay on the sidewalks along the parking lot.

Ansari’s internship at Arkansas Nuclear One turned into a full-time role last year.

“When working in the nuclear power industry,” she says, “no two days are alike.” Every morning she checks the status of the plant, she says. If a pump has stopped operating, for example, she troubleshoots to get it running again. She then checks for notifications from her colleagues who worked the night shift. The messages might include a notification about a tripping hazard from wires, or an alert about foreign material such as dirt or sand that could make its way into the pumps and cause deterioration or failure. She ensures that such messages are delivered to all employees before their workday begins.

Another one of her responsibilities is keeping the plant’s license active by following government requirements issued by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She ensures the facility meets design standards and regulations.

This month she is leading a project to swap out a damaged exciter, an alternator producing an AC current that is then converted to DC through rectifiers. If the exciter isn’t operating properly, it could cause power outages for the facility’s customers. Another plant gave Arkansas Nuclear One an exciter, but it didn’t fit the facility’s design standards. So the exciter was refurbished “down to the nuts and bolts,” Ansari says, before being installed.

She has been overseeing the process, including documenting the design requirements, ensuring that the exciter was welded properly, and managing the logistics of transporting the 4.6-meter-long alternator, which weighs 3.2 tonnes.

Ansari is now figuring out how to install the equipment in accordance with the facility’s fire-safety procedures. If a fire were to happen during the installation, she must ensure there’s no risk of the equipment exploding. The exciter then needs to be tested to confirm it’s working correctly in its new location.

In addition to those tasks, Ansari has kept the company’s stakeholders, including engineers and government regulators, informed of the project’s progress, and she has incorporated their feedback. The project is expected to take more than a year to complete.

Global partnerships with an eye toward plant safety

The nuclear community is tightly bound because “nuclear accidents that happen in any part of the world affect the entire community,” Ansari says. “By working together, we mitigate accidents.”

When an incident does occur, information is shared with nuclear plants worldwide so that the industry can try to prevent similar accidents.

That process was created after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan. All nuclear plants in the United States now follow what’s called the FLEX plan, a four-step process to prevent power loss and reactor meltdown.

The 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine led to the formation of the World Association of Nuclear Operators, which writes regulations and technical standards.

Being a member of IEEE, Ansari says, allows her to remain informed of what’s taking place in nuclear plants around the world. Members share new safety protocols and best practices with one another.

“Together,” Ansari says, “we’re striving to make nuclear energy even safer.”

She is an active member of the IEEE Power & Energy Society and is involved in several of its working groups that are drafting and updating nuclear power plant standards.

“We go word by word so that the standard is precise,” she says. The interpretation of some terminology can vary by country, she notes, so it’s critical to have a common vocabulary.

“One standard can be 100 pages long,” she says. “We go back and forth to ensure every period and comma is precise, and that there’s no room for misinterpretation.”

Ansari conducts research on how to implement optimal methodologies and design modifications in facilities. Her work has been published in the industry’s top journals.

Joining IEEE was a big milestone for her, she says.

“I’ve devoted most of my life to this career, and I feel I am able to make a difference in the global community,” she says. “Nuclear energy is the future.”