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Nuclear Plant Operator Uses RFID to Promote Safety

Southern Co. employs a unique type of active tag to track employees' locations at its training center, as well as teach them how to avoid excessive radiation exposure.
By Claire Swedberg
May 18, 2009Southern Co. has completed a pilot testing an RFID-based system to train employees in how to limit their exposure to radiation. The RFID system, provided by Q-Track, feeds a worker's location data to software that then calculates the level of exposure that person would have received in a real-world scenario. It's part of a simulated environment intended to train future employees of the electric utility company's Plant Vogtle nuclear facility—located in Waynesboro, Ga.—how to gauge their exposure. Staff members are instructed to base their radiation exposure on a floor map of the factory that demarks the locations of radiation hot spots, as well as to employ dosimeter readers displaying the cumulative level of radiation encountered.

William Keith Hodnett, Plant Vogtle's training department mechanical instructor, described the pilot at a breakout session at RFID Journal LIVE! 2009, held last month in Orlando, Fla.

Q-Track's QT500 RFID tag
Nuclear plant employees are limited regarding the amount of radiation to which they can be exposed during any particular period of time without jeopardizing their health. To provide them with the information they require to ensure they avoid spending too much time in an area of high radiation, a health physicist walks through the plant before work begins, measuring radiation levels, then provides the staff with a map indicating the level of radiation in specific areas of the floor.

Employees wear a dosimeter, and are expected to use that device, as well as the map, to monitor their own levels. If a worker receives excessive radiation, the dosimeter sounds an alarm. "The sources of radiation are not just reactors," Hodnett told LIVE! attendees. Some radioactive particles enter the cooling system and become trapped in welds and bends, he explained, so personnel need to learn not to stand too close—or for too long—near such locations, which could be radiation hot spots.

However, Hodnett noted, before employees even enter the plant floor, they must complete a training process to ensure they understand how to use the map and dosimeter to reduce exposure prior to entering the real-world environment. In the past, the company provided such training with cameras, recording footage of each worker's location in the simulated plant floor. Instructors could then review the video and determine that individual's behavior, including whether or not he was receiving an excessive amount of radiation, and whether he was following the map provided by the health physicist.

Southern Co. had sought a better training method that would more closely approximate the environment in which the employees would work. In 2007, the power company approached Q-Track, a startup firm based in Huntsville, Ala. In response, Q-Track developed a system utilizing its near-field electromagnetic ranging (NFER) system. The solution features a QT500 battery-powered RFID tag that attaches to a belt. Although it does not actually measure radiation—of which there is none in the simulated plant—the tag receives an instruction from the Q-Track software to display radiation measurements based on where the employee is standing in the simulated plant floor. If the software is instructed that a particular location is highly radioactive, for instance, and if a trainee wearing a Q-Track tag spends too much time in that location, the tag's LCD displays that person's high level of radiation exposure. What's more, if the amount reaches a predetermined threshold, the tag sounds an alarm.

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