"It's easy for one guy to start taking more control than he should," Franke said. "He may start making decisions, and the senior operator may be watching him instead of directing him."
To prevent that problem, Franke said, utilities have rewritten some of their procedures to make sure the convenience of digital controls does not erode control room authority. None of the trainees have yet taken NRC tests specific to the AP1000, though the tests will include demonstrating they can shut down the reactor using manual controls if the computer system fails, Franke said.
Reactor operators say digital controls also bring advantages. Instead of manually retrieving printed copies of plant procedures, the plant's software system anticipates which actions may be necessary and retrieve a digital copy of those instructions for the operators to review. Those running the reactor can see critical information on a single screen, rather than walking from control panel to control panel to gather it.
"That makes it a lot easier," said Hayes, though he added that it is better for humans to identify and fix problems before automated systems kick in.
"You want to perform the action before the actual plant does the action, have the human in control so you're driving the plant, the plant's not driving you," he said.
Like elsewhere in the nuclear industry, many of the candidates in training have experience running the nuclear reactors on U.S. Navy ships. After leaving the Navy, Daniel Ramirez worked as an engineer at a startup manufacturing facility, then came to Southern Co. because he wanted more experience building a facility from the ground up.
"That's one of the big draws," he said, "new technology."
Follow Ray Henry at http://twitter.com/rhenryAP.