A Plan for Everything

Critical service providers like the RWE utility company need to be especially well prepared for emergencies. Precise and detailed planning ensure that they can respond rapidly to unexpected events.


Safety first: Nuclear power stations like this one in the northwestern Emsland region are part of Germany’s essential infrastructure. Critical service providers like the RWE utility company need to be very well prepared for emergencies.Bloomberg/Getty Images

The alarm sound­ing loud­ly at RWE’s head­quar­ters in Essen star­tles every­one on the tele­con­fer­ence, whether they’re at the site them­selves or con­nect­ed from other loca­tions. “That came right on cue,” remarks Dr. Cord-Hen­rich Lefhalm, a mechan­i­cal engi­neer and physi­cist who has just been describ­ing the util­i­ty company’s emer­gency plans, includ­ing those for the corona­virus pan­dem­ic. As divi­sion head of decom­mis­sion­ing and dis­man­tling for RWE Nuclear GmbH, he is super­vis­ing the over­all process of dis­man­tling RWE’s five nuclear power sta­tions by the mid-2030s. That task is based on a deci­sion in 2011 by the Ger­man gov­ern­ment to phase out the country’s nuclear power facil­i­ties. When the corona­virus pan­dem­ic broke out, Lefhalm became the head of RWE Nuclear’s cri­sis man­age­ment team and there­fore also a mem­ber of the cri­sis team for the entire RWE Group.

Our top priority is to maintain the power supply under any and all circumstances.

Dr. Cord-Henrich LefhalmDr. Cord-Henrich Lefhalm
Division Head Decommissioning and Dismantling, RWE Nuclear

The company’s four subsidiaries—RWE Renew­ables, RWE Gen­er­a­tion, RWE Power (to which RWE Nuclear belongs) and RWE Sup­ply & Trading—provide around forty-three gigawatts of elec­tric­i­ty to house­holds in Ger­many, Europe, and the US. In the fall of 2019, RWE entered an agree­ment with the Ger­man ener­gy group E.ON to take over the latter’s entire port­fo­lio of renew­able ener­gies, which made it one of Europe’s three largest providers in the field. RWE is also num­ber two in the world in the off­shore wind ener­gy sec­tor. The RWE Group expects to become cli­mate-neu­tral by 2040. It employs a total of around 20,000 peo­ple and is one of the crit­i­cal com­pa­nies as defined by Germany’s Fed­er­al Office for Infor­ma­tion Secu­ri­ty (BSI). “Our top pri­or­i­ty is to main­tain the power sup­ply under any and all cir­cum­stances,” says ener­gy spe­cial­ist Lefhalm.

At a Glance

Critical Sectors—the BSI Act

Because of their key role for the economy or infrastructure, critical sectors need to continue functioning in the event of emergencies or disasters. In Germany, the Federal Office of Information Security (BSI) determines which companies or organizations have to meet this requirement. BSI works with businesses in a number of different ways. It accredits and certifies independent inspection offices that test compliance with its security requirements for IT products. According to the act, in addition to energy and water, these critical sectors include food, information technology and telecommunications, health, finance and insurance as well as transportation and traffic.

Information within an hour

There are many dan­gers that might have trig­gered the alarm at RWE head­quar­ters, but Lefhalm and the other par­tic­i­pants in the tele­con­fer­ence respond calm­ly. The cri­sis man­ag­er keeps the con­fer­ence going on his smart­phone as he walks rapid­ly out of the build­ing. The alarm soon turns out to be a rel­a­tive­ly harm­less inter­lude. An emer­gency fire door had been opened improp­er­ly, and the employ­ees are now return­ing to their offices. Han­dling all prob­lems promptly—there’s noth­ing hap­haz­ard about that at RWE Nuclear. Instead, the abil­i­ty is the result of con­stant prac­tice and sophis­ti­cat­ed plan­ning. “Our man­u­als con­tain pre­cise instruc­tions for emer­gen­cies and they’re avail­able both elec­tron­i­cal­ly and as tra­di­tion­al paper binders,” says Lefhalm. That is espe­cial­ly true for his own area of respon­si­bil­i­ty, nuclear ener­gy. Every nuclear power sta­tion has a decen­tral­ized cri­sis man­age­ment team in addi­tion to the cen­tral cri­sis man­age­ment team at Group head­quar­ters. All sites have shel­ters for the employ­ees, who in extreme cases can shut them­selves into the power sta­tion and main­tain operations.

Cri­sis man­age­ment at RWE involves employ­ees from all lev­els of the hier­ar­chy, and is made up of dif­fer­ent teams. It is impor­tant for every­one to receive detailed infor­ma­tion and be able to respond rapid­ly, says Lefhalm. “We plan for spe­cif­ic nuclear power-relat­ed sce­nar­ios and use sim­u­la­tors to prac­tice dif­fer­ent emer­gen­cies sev­er­al times a year. Reg­u­la­to­ry bod­ies are also includ­ed in these mea­sures.” They cover every­thing from minor dis­tur­bances like doors left open by mis­take to the worst pos­si­ble acci­dents. But the lat­ter are essen­tial­ly out of the ques­tion. The plans also spec­i­fy how infor­ma­tion flows from staff mem­bers all the way up to board mem­bers. “The rel­e­vant board mem­bers are informed about any inci­dents with­in an hour at most and can decide on what steps to take,” Lefhalm explains. “A com­put­er­ized sys­tem makes sure the infor­ma­tion moves quick­ly, and auto­mat­i­cal­ly con­venes the cen­tral cri­sis man­age­ment team.”

Planning is more important than vision

Good plan­ning and effi­cient imple­men­ta­tion are the key com­po­nents of cri­sis man­age­ment. This view is shared by experts in orga­ni­za­tion­al psy­chol­o­gy such as Gian­piero Petriglieri, a psy­chi­a­trist and asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of orga­ni­za­tion­al behav­ior at INSEAD Busi­ness School, whose main cam­pus is in Fontainebleau near Paris. Accord­ing to Petriglieri, real lead­er­ship is not pri­mar­i­ly a mat­ter of vision. While a vision can inspire, moti­vate, and fos­ter hope among employ­ees, it is less impor­tant than a prac­tice known to psy­chol­o­gists as “hold­ing.” The abil­i­ty of lead­er­ship per­son­nel to “hold” includes accept­ing employ­ees’ emo­tions, con­vey­ing a sense of real­i­ty, and guid­ing them to take appro­pri­ate action. With­out prepa­ra­tion and plan­ning, it not pos­si­ble to take clear and struc­tured action in emer­gency situations—and there­fore also impos­si­ble to do a con­vinc­ing job of “hold­ing.”

Working together with Porsche Consulting

Transformation of an Energy Giant

Porsche Consulting is supporting RWE Nuclear in developing an industrial process to dismantle nuclear power stations. In addition to their knowledge of the industry and processes, the consultants are also using artificial intelligence for the planning and controlling processes. This enables safe and efficient work on the enormous task of dismantling power stations while at the same time maintaining key operational functions. Porsche Consulting is also supporting RWE Nuclear’s Covid-19 crisis management team in making rapid and structured decisions. Clear processes ensured the requisite transparency and efficient logistics in distributing crucial protective equipment for critical infrastructure facilities such as the power stations.

That is espe­cial­ly applic­a­ble to pan­demics, which are invari­ably asso­ci­at­ed with a fear of con­ta­gion and its con­se­quences. RWE had also laid prepa­ra­tions for these types of sit­u­a­tions. It had updat­ed its plan­ning in con­nec­tion with the SARS epi­dem­ic of 2002 and 2003, dur­ing which a vari­ant of SARS-CoV was spread­ing pri­mar­i­ly in Asia. “Back then we were already deter­min­ing what we need­ed to safe­guard our employ­ees in a pan­dem­ic, espe­cial­ly with respect to face masks and dis­in­fec­tants,” says Lefhalm. As soon as infor­ma­tion about the dan­ger­ous new virus appeared in early 2020, the cri­sis man­age­ment teams at RWE Nuclear took orga­ni­za­tion­al pre­cau­tions to ensure both oper­a­tions and occu­pa­tion­al safe­ty. “That includes tem­per­a­ture checks at site entrances and strict self-quar­an­tine regulations.”

The pan­dem­ic has led to new knowl­edge. “We’ve learned how impor­tant it is to coor­di­nate our efforts on an inter­na­tion­al scale,” says Lefhalm. “The same chal­lenges keep aris­ing every­where in crises, espe­cial­ly our oblig­a­tions as employ­ers to take care of our work­ers while also sup­ply­ing our cus­tomers and pro­vid­ing the ener­gy that allows our econ­o­my to run smooth­ly. That only works on the basis of inter­na­tion­al coop­er­a­tion. We have to share our expe­ri­ence and learn from each other.”

Nuclear power stations have to undergo detailed inspections every year. These audits can bring as many as a thousand employees of partner companies onto the site. The May 2020 audit of RWE Nuclear’s power station in Emsland was conducted under strict coronavirus safety regulations.Bloomberg/Getty Images

Emergency culture enables rapid responses

Com­pre­hen­sive mea­sures have enabled RWE Nuclear to remain free of any Covid-19 cases in the months fol­low­ing the out­break. “We work on closed premis­es with high safe­ty stan­dards, which makes the sit­u­a­tion some­what eas­i­er for us than other branch­es of indus­try,” observes Lefhalm. Despite that, many employ­ees have been indi­rect­ly affect­ed by the pan­dem­ic. Nuclear power plants have to under­go exten­sive inspec­tions every year. They are removed from the grid while thou­sands of indi­vid­ual com­po­nents such as pumps, fuel rods, valves, con­densers, and motors are checked. Only after all details of the audit are com­plet­ed and an audi­tor and the rel­e­vant reg­u­la­to­ry agency have given their approval may the plant go back on the grid. This is an enor­mous project that can bring a thou­sand addi­tion­al work­ers onto the site under nor­mal cir­cum­stances. “That’s not fea­si­ble with the corona­virus in play,” says Lefhalm. “So we had to com­plete­ly change our plans. That meant a lot of extra work, but our employ­ees didn’t hes­i­tate in the slight­est and were 100% on board.” The inspec­tion of the Ems­land nuclear power sta­tion that was suc­cess­ful­ly con­clud­ed in May 2020 under strict safe­ty mea­sures is an impres­sive demon­stra­tion of pur­pose. For projects of that type to work, it is essen­tial to have a strong emer­gency cul­ture and for the employ­ees to appre­ci­ate the impor­tance of their roles. Some­thing like that can­not be intro­duced overnight—which is yet anoth­er rea­son why RWE Nuclear con­tin­ues to prac­tice how to han­dle every con­ceiv­able emer­gency situation.

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