Digitalisation – why the nuclear industry needs it

  • Digitalisation – why the nuclear industry needs it

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    2-minute read

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    Digitalisation, big data, Internet of Things (IoT) – all terms we hear regularly. But what benefits do they bring to the nuclear industry?

     


    Experts say the industry needs digitalisation to remain competitive, safe and secure. It needs digitalisation to operate nuclear power plants (NPP) efficiently and to train the next generation of technicians and engineers.


    Most of all, they point out, it needs to make the most of digital technology and interconnectivity to keep up with the rest of the industrialised world. 


    In the US, nuclear generation costs rose by 28% between 2003 and 2015, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) reported. A major part of that cost is maintenance.

     

     

    Savings from efficiency


    US operators spend more than $7.5bn a year on reactor maintenance and upgrades across the country’s 99 operating NPPs. If their efficiency could be increased by just 10%, they would save $750m a year.


    Digitalisation offers that hope.


    “Digital transformation centres around three areas: people, process and assets,” Joan Knight, Exelon Generation innovation director, wrote in Smart Industry, a magazine focused on IoT.


    “The enabling technologies are IoT-connected sensors and smart devices, advanced analytics, drones and robotics, artificial intelligence, and ‘digital worker experience’ – tools to help workers visualise, provide, process and access information.”

     

    Cutting-edge data analytics


    Exelon is among operators who have started programmes that use cutting-edge data analytics to minimise downtime and cut costs. The US energy giant has implemented a system called Digital Plant Viewer, an interactive map with 360-degree views of every level in the plant, showing radiation levels in an active view with virtualisation.


    Another to use data analytics to support efficient operations and maintenance activities is Fortum. It says interactive 360-degree videos and virtual reality are in daily use to improve operational efficiency. Tools include interactive 3D-models, plus virtual and augmented reality for operations and training.


    Fortum is using big data to develop predictive maintenance, mirroring work in aviation where sensor-driven software is increasingly used to predict when parts need to be replaced, drastically reducing unexpected events and shortening downtime.

     

    A role for robotics


    Robotics also has a part to play, particularly in decommissioning reactors. The French Atomic Energy Commission’s (CEA) Maestro robot in 2016 began to dismantle a plutonium extraction plant (UP1) using a laser to cut steel tanks that once contained dissolved spent nuclear fuel.


    Operating equipment like Maestro requires skill. Here digitalisation is coming to the industry’s aid with training based on virtual and augmented reality. With new talent increasingly at a premium, it’s a step in the right direction to show the nuclear industry is keeping up with technology.


    More interconnectivity adds to efficiency by allowing greater access to NPP data but also increases the risk of cyber security breaches.


    Warnings that the nuclear industry has to do more to protect itself from cyber attack are contained in the UK’s five-year Civil Nuclear Cyber Security Strategy, released in 2017. It said the threat is becoming increasingly global and asymmetric. Both state and non-state actors can use easily available cyber tools for destructive purposes.


    Whatever the challenges, the nuclear industry must adopt digitalisation techniques to drive down costs, improve reliability and, ultimately, safety. But it will not be an easy path to take.

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