Gary Boles was drawn to engineering at a young age, and pointed his high school education towards ultimately achieving a degree in that field. His older brother, who has a PhD in Chemical Engineering, was a positive influence on his decision. “I think a person has to be born with a certain kind of acumen to choose engineering as their profession,” said Boles. “They need to have the right mindset to deal with the things engineers have to deal with.” After achieving his Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Tennessee, Boles began working as a utility employee in the power industry.
Boles was drawn to the power industry because of the fascination it held for him. “It was not the money, nor was it the glamour. There is nothing glamorous about it,” he admitted. “But the fact that I am in the power industry helping to create something that everyone needs is pretty cool.” He spent three decades working at Tennessee Valley Authority in their nuclear power program where he acted as First Line Maintenance Supervisor before working his way up to an Engineering Manager; his experience has been primarily in maintenance and engineering of mechanical components.
For the last decade, Boles has worked as the Principal Technical Leader at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). His primary focus has been to help improve the reliability of power plant equipment through improved processes and work practices. “I feel like I am making a difference,” Boles said.
The Collaborative Model
Boles spends a lot of his time trying to find long-term solutions for problems that arise in the industry. “When you are busy, it is easier to throw a bandage solution on a problem and move on, but that will not give a stable solution. The problem will happen again and again, and that is why I am here: to stop the problem,” he explained.
One of the aspects Boles enjoys most about his job is being presented a challenge, and then being able to solve it. “I have been presented with problems that are quite difficult to solve in the industry,” said Boles. “After I have seen the issue, I work alongside my coworkers to find a solution.” Using the collaborative model, Boles and his team work with manufacturers, vendors, service providers, and whomever else they can think of to find the resources to resolve the issue. “The people I work with have so much experience, which means we can all bounce ideas off each other and step up when someone needs help. It is a great team to work with,” Boles said.
Boles and his team like to call themselves the “plug and play” guys. “Our boss can ask us to do anything, and he knows we will get it done. Sometimes our boss does not even get involved because he knows he does not have to. We are all pretty seasoned employees,” he said.
Challenges to Innovation
“The nuclear power industry sometimes stifles innovation,” admitted Boles. He has always understood why this challenge occurs: the people in the nuclear power industry are working in a highly regulated environment, or in an environment where there is a risk of plant events that could affect the public, so strict standards are set to ensure safety. Sometimes innovation also comes at a financial risk, and it is hard to embrace a new idea or new way of thinking or working.
EPRI encourages innovation, and Boles was happy to make the career move towards research. “It is really the best job I have ever had,” he said.
Nuclear Power Plant Pumps
“One of the most recent projects I have been working on deals with pumps,” Boles explained. “We were working on a seal that could have its physical dimension changed based on operating parameters of the pump while it was running.” As many nuclear power plants use mechanical seals, Boles has had a lot of experience working with them.
The challenges Boles faces most often are problems with mechanical seals. He spends a lot of his time researching why a seal might fail and how the plant can fix the issue. Another challenge he faces is corrosion of raw water pumps. “In our industry, many of the pumps are getting quite old, and there is therefore a whole host of problems that can occur. Examples include MIC (microbiological induced corrosion), general corrosion which happens over time, and sometimes there are issues that do not become apparent until there is major damage,” said Boles. “At that point, you are trying to determine the best repair method.” If there is damage to the impeller or shaft, it is hard to replace because of how large and expensive the parts are; to mitigate the extra expense, Boles suggests trying to repair before replacing the part.
“If I had to choose, I would say working with mechanical seals is a little more challenging than most other applications, so they are my favourite to work with,” Boles explained. “Mechanical seals move, and there are more dynamics involved. I have loved learning more about them in my role at EPRI.”
Leakage of radioactive fluids from nuclear power plant pumps is important from a radioactive contamination and dose perspective. In addition, excessive leakage can affect the pump’s reliability. One of the areas we are seeking to exploit is the use of new technologies to monitor the performance of mechanical seals to mitigate failure or to determine when seals require maintenance so that it can be performed during planned outages, rather than forced shutdowns during high electric power demand seasons. The desire to improve performance while reducing operating cost has become more important for nuclear power plants in recent years due to the competition from other power sources. However, the large base loads that nuclear power plants provide make them important to the overall electric power supply suite of plants (e.g. coal fired, gas fired, co-generation, and renewables such as wind and solar).