PALO — Inside Duane Arnold Energy Center's 500-acre complex sits a highly sophisticated simulator that's identical to the nuclear power plant's main control room.
The simulator, used to train DAEC's senior reactor operators and reactor operators, had new counter tops installed a few months ago after a similar change-out in the main control room.
Nine employees completed reactor operator training in April, an intensive 22-month long program that combines tons of hours logged in the control room simulator with an accredited classroom component and hands-on work under the strict guidance of licensed operators.
"We hire people and then pay them to take classes," said Richard Anderson, site vice president for Iowa's only nuclear power plant.
DAEC is about nine miles northwest of Cedar Rapids and generates 615 million watts of electricity annually — enough to power about 500,000 homes across the Midwest.
The training program has evolved over time as technology changed and accidents have occurred, particularly Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island incident in 1979. So what once was a 50-week program in the early 1990s is now almost two years long.
"Back in the day, they just taught you how the plant works," said Glenn Rushworth, DAEC operations director.
Forty-five of DAEC's 600 full-time employees work in the power plant's 32,800-square-foot training center, which includes the simulator that tests trainees in high-stress environments.
The simulator is filled with monitors, blinking lights and color-coded carpet that indicates where certain levels of employees can stand. Trainees deal with everything from routine activities to no-win situations that can include multiple malfunctioning systems, power outages or threats from serious weather.
The simulator exercises are designed to test trainees ability to handle stress and teach them to stay under protocol, Rushworth said.
After their training is complete, employees must receive their license from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an independent federal agency, before they can touch equipment on their own. Reactor operators must undergo additional training every six weeks, according to Steve Speirs, an operations shift manager.
Before training begins, DAEC invites class members families to an on-site dinner reception where leaders talk with spouses about the odd hours and time commitment involved.
"It can be challenging," Rushworth said."Human beings are just not conditioned to do everything (the way) that what we have to do them," he added. "There are instructions on how to get through a door here."