IEC I&C Standards in the nuclear sector

Interview with Marie-Caroline Ehrhard, IEC Young Professional Leader 2012

Marie-Caroline Ehrhard works as an I&C (Instrumentation and Control) engineer at EDF Generation and Engineering, in France. In this interview with e-tech Ehrhard gives insights to her I&C role and involvement in the IEC Young Professional programme.

Marie-Caroline Ehrhard, IEC Young Professional Leader 2012

e-tech: Marie-Caroline, as one of the IEC Young Professional Leaders for 2012, could you tell us how you came to work in your field?

I graduated in 2009 and was looking for work in the energy sector, more specifically in the production side of things, rather than the distribution one. This was also the year EDF pursued its massive recruitment campaign in order to face the challenges brought forward by the world's renewed interest in nuclear energy. Because of my background in systems engineering they offered me a job as an instrumentation and control engineer. So I guess it was both luck and good timing.

I&C – the nervous system of the nuclear power plant

e-tech: What does your role as a nuclear I&C (Instrumentation and Control) engineer involve? The instrumentation and control installation of a nuclear power plant can be compared to the plant's nervous system. It is through this network of sensors, actuators, computers and so forth that information is relayed from the process to the control room and that orders are sent back.

In my particular field we focus on the I&C "licencing", which is equivalent to a safety demonstration. Our aim is to demonstrate that I&C systems will behave as intended (function, precision, and time performance) under all the required circumstances (normal operation, fuel loading, fuel unloading or even incidental and accidental conditions). This demonstration is presented first of all to EDF, who as the nuclear operator bears the responsibility of its installation, and to the national safety authorities (ASN (Nuclear Safety Authority) in France, ONR (Office for Nuclear Regulation) in the UK, NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) in the US).

The nuclear safety culture

e-tech: What are the key aspects of ensuring safety in a nuclear facility in regards to I&C? Ensuring safety is based on "the nuclear safety culture". This means addressing every issue with a questioning mind-set – constantly challenging what has been done; ensuring that with every decision safety is either preserved or improved. This is a particular mind-set that always puts safety issues above planning and cost-related ones.

When it comes to I&C, this translates into two major aspects. A general one, that aims at ensuring the overall I&C architecture is designed to address all required challenges. For instance what happens if this fails, or this, or both of them ... and making sure that for all those possible failures we have a solution. The second aspect is a system level one, which deals with ensuring that each I&C system was correctly developed and implemented, that it will behave as planned.

Compliance with IEC standards

e-tech: What does a typical working day involve for you?

This is where the IEC standards come in. The safety demonstration mentioned above relies on numerous aspects, including for instance extensive testing. But, when it comes to I&C, it also relies heavily on the fact that the systems were developed and implemented using the best possible techniques and know how. As IEC standards are recognised worldwide and by all parties (national safety bodies, utilities, manufacturers...) in order to regroup the best possible techniques the demonstration amounts to showing that the I&C systems are compliant with applicable IEC standards.

A typical working day for me would therefore involve receiving development documentation from a system's manufacturer and evaluating its compliance to IEC/SC45A standards. It would also involve meeting suppliers to discuss the IEC-inspired requirements, their compliance to them, and possible compensation measures if needed.

e-tech: Do you have much contact with other engineers who do the same kind of work?

We work mostly as a team. In Lyon there are 10 of us. Because I've specialised in new nuclear I am also in frequent contact with I&C colleagues in Paris.

The work of IEC SC 45A

e-tech: How do International Standards fit in?

IEC standards set the bar for what are the "best international practices" that we must follow. When it comes to I&C the IEC has a dedicated Subcommittee (45A), which specialises in Nuclear Power Plants instrumentation and control.

e-tech: What about the IEC/IEEE 62582 series?

SC45A standards are organised in three levels. The level 1 standard is the basis of the IEC nuclear I&C approach, it is called IEC 61513 NPP - I&C important to safety - General requirements for systems. IEC 61513 is the top level SC45 A document. It refers to IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) documents for applicable safety concepts, such as NSR1 (Safety of Nuclear Power Plant), defence in depth etc.

IEC 61513 directly refers to level 2 standards for general topics such as hardware, software aspects etc. Finally, third level standards deal with specific equipment or aspects. For instance IEC/IEEE 62582 is a level 3 standard centred on monitoring methods.

Nuclear I&C in France

e-tech: Could you tell us how things are evolving in the nuclear field?

As far as nuclear I&C goes in the IEC things are stable. The existing IEC standards are recognised as a basis for the industry and their reach is increasing. For instance, the French nuclear industry relies on a body called AFCEN (French Association for the rules governing the Design, Construction and Operating Supervision of the Equipment Items for Electro Nuclear Boilers) to codify its knowhow and best practices. This knowledge is updated and published every three years in a book RCC (Règle de Conception et de Construction / Conception and Construction rules). For electronic and electric equipment the general trend is to align RCC positions with IEC standards. For I&C in particular, we plan to have this done as early as 2016. This is a huge undertaking but is in the interest of greater international cooperation.

At the same time, new topics arise and they need to be addressed. For instance, of particular importance now in the nuclear I&C area is the computer security aspect, as demonstrated by Stuxnet. In the IEC this has led to the creation of IEC 62645. Also present are of course the lessons learned from the Fukushima accident.

National and international alignment

e-tech: How big an undertaking is it to update the RCC (Conception and Construction rules)?

This is a big undertaking as it hasn’t been done before and everyone needs to agree on it. Because in the IEC you vote and at the end of the vote if the majority says ‘yes’ then you can go ahead. With the RCC you need to have everyone say that they are okay with it. So you need a 100% yes vote. We’re hoping to get it done by 2016. So far everyone we’ve been working with has been very open and supportive of the idea…that’s the utility, the national bodies, the suppliers. Everyone in the sector has been saying that this is definitely a good idea and everyone’s implementing the IEC standards – so why keep another point-of-view if everyone agrees with this?

e-tech: You mentioned that you give input into standards when they are being drafted. How did you first become involved in this?

Several of my every day colleagues are deeply involved in IEC and AFCEN work. This involvement ranges from being SC Secretary, to being a project manager for a new standard or update and, of course, participating in the drafting of new or updated standards.

I personally became involved in the first place by helping them out on a day-to-day basis. At the moment my main objective is the alignment of our French industry standard (AFCEN's RCC see above) with IEC standards.

Benefits of the IEC Young Professionals programme

e-tech: How has the IEC Young Professionals Programme helped you?

The IEC YP programme has helped me broaden my horizons. It has allowed me to come into contact with people operating in a totally different environment from what I am used to. Being in contact with those people and their ways of thinking was an amazing opportunity.

e-tech: Do you think that you may become more involved in the technical work of the IEC once your year as an IEC Young Professional Leader comes to an end?

I’m trying to get more involved on the technical side of things though it’s proving to be a little difficult. It just happens that I’m surrounded by experts and as I’m not an expert I don’t participate as much as I’d like on the technical side of things. So right now I’ll try to be more involved in the French mirror committee to IEC – that’s probably the proper and easier way for me to be involved and stay up-to-date on what’s coming up.

We are also trying to create a Young Professional Programme in France as well. It requires time and someone to take the lead. We know how we want to do it though we haven’t got around to actually doing it yet.

e-tech: Do you have any advice for people starting out in this field?

If you are quoting a standard you cannot be wrong. Question everything.

Working in STEM careers

e-tech: What about advice for young women in regards to STEM (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers?

STEM careers are still very much male-dominated, but this should not keep you down. My advice would be to work hard, be good at your job and don't be afraid to show it. Let the others worry about you being a woman. In the end it will not matter, all that will remain is what you have done.

fam2_image1_marie-caroline_ehrhard_large Marie-Caroline Ehrhard, IEC Young Professional Leader 2012
DSC_4973 The IEC Young Professionals Programme helps to broaden horizons and share professional experience
nuclear_power_plant_control_room_simulator4 I&C can be likened to the nervous system of the nuclear power plant