Nuclear organisations have been issued with an impassioned plea – to embrace digital opportunities or risk falling behind other sectors. Neill Pawsey explores the opportunities – and the benefits that they can unlock.

LAST month, the globe’s nuclear organisations were issued with an impassioned plea: Seize on emerging digital opportunities – or risk getting left behind other sectors.

The plea came from William D. Magwood, IV, the highly respected Director-General of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA). Addressing a plenary session of the Sustainable Nuclear Energy Technology Group (SNET) Forum 2021, he said the research community must “really make the case” for nuclear organisations to forge ahead in their digital journeys.

“When you look at a lot of these other sectors, you see …. a driving desire to apply new technologies. That is a component we often don’t see in the nuclear sector,” he said. “Too often in the nuclear sector, we feel it’s important to stay with the safe, predictable, well-understood and well-known, as opposed to looking at the edge of technology, which is the character of a lot of other industries.”

The infrastructure sector, long regarded as a technological laggard, is today seeing digital techniques and applications gain ground. The benefits of increased efficiency and value-for-money, reduced waste and reduced risk are increasingly widely understood. Collaborative working and Building Information Modelling (BIM), together with a profusion of new software solutions, are driving improved data management practices and delivering a significantly more effective ‘whole life-cycle’ approach.

But in nuclear specifically, a sector which contributes £12.4 billion to the UK economy and which provides long-term employment for 87,000 people across the civil and defence sectors,  adoption of these practices has been slow. The caution has been attributed, in part to the sector’s strict safety standards and need to ensure that systems and hardware are all fully secure.

The potential benefits of digitisation and a structured, digital approach to data management, are though, arguably, even greater for nuclear than for other sectors: The sheer-size and complexity of nuclear projects and the number of different parties involved as well as the critical need to retain and protect information for easy access by those developing future projects possibly years down the line, means that the sector could be radically enhanced through a digital, data-driven approach.

The potential benefits of a digital approach were outlined in a report from the NDA last year. The study, Unlocking Reduction in the Construction Costs of Nuclear, cited benefits specific to design and construction. These included:

  • Increased productivity;
  • Quick and well-informed decision making – with greater unification, synchronisation and traceability of information;
  • Supply chain integration – with greater alignment and co-ordination of the supply chain;
  • Detailed engineering with system engineering approaches digitally enabled to accommodate more simulations, analyses and verification in the early stages of design, thus reducing reworking risks.

Digital Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) platforms were cited in the study as the digital tools ‘capturing the most attention’ within the sector. It also cites as ‘promising’, Building Information Management (BIM) systems and digital twins, which it said, “make it possible to continuously update existing BIM and multi-d models, narrowing the gap between ‘as-planned’ and ‘as-built’ information, thus facilitating the detection and correction of deviations, and enabling quick and well-informed on-site decision making.”

A key ‘interesting’ feature of twins, the report said, was “their potential to perform online resource planning, logistics and localisation. This facilitates the control of workforce densities and avoids unnecessary movements and material handling.” This, it said, was particularly relevant for nuclear projects, in which the peak workforce can reach more than 4,000 people.

Fresh impetus

In the UK, work to digitise the sector – led by bodies such as the Nuclear Institute with its Digital Special Interest Group (SIG) – has been steadily gaining pace.

Impetus for improved embedment of digital has been increased by recent events; These include, of course, the pandemic and the huge upheaval it is has delivered and the Government’s December 2020 Energy White Paper. This stated that large-scale nuclear would continue to be pursued as a ‘reliable source of low-carbon electricity’ as well as investment in small modular reactors and advanced modular reactors. It stated too though that new build was dependent on the sector “demonstrate (ing).. that it is able to reduce costs and deliver to time and budget.”

Central to digital transformation work is the structured knowledge sharing which is underway within the industry. Learning around areas such as digital twins is also being imported from other sectors to help deepen understanding of their application for nuclear.

Last year’s NucIear Institute ‘ Go Digital’ conference for example, brought together leading professionals in the field including Dr Rebecca Weston, COO of Sellafield Ltd, Gwen Parry-Jones  OBE, CEO of Magnox to share their knowledge and experience in implementing digital techniques across decommissioning projects, radioactive waste management, asset support, reactor design and nuclear new-build.

The event included a session on digital twins and their application in the nuclear industry with panellists from Magnox, EDF Energy, Rolls Royce and Waldeck, sharing their perspectives and their future vision for digital twins in the nuclear sector.

New ways of working

Here at PCSG, we have supported a number of nuclear projects in their effort to put a digital approach at the centre of their work. For Hinkley Point C – the first new nuclear build in the UK since Sizewell B nearly 30 years ago – we have provided Project Information Management support, BIM subject matter expertise and assistance in the procurement of the Common Data Environment solution.

In 2016, we were engaged by Horizon Nuclear Power to work with its supply chain and IBM to deliver an information management and technology programme. Our work included the development of Horizon’s standards for the production and exchange of controlled documentation and records to ensure acceptable document formats and to set guidelines for the layout and contents for controlled documents.

From drawing boards to digital

Our work to help accelerate the sector’s digital journey has not focused on technology  alone – but on the culture change and new ways of working that must accompany a digital approach.

Twenty years ago at Sellafield, the UK’s largest and most complex nuclear site, engineers at the plant were working on drawing boards. Today Sellafield Ltd  heralds digital engineering as the route to “getting value from our assets across their lifetime” and has pledged, in its Enterprise strategy 2020, that “by 2025 we will work in an agile and adaptive way using digital technology”.

As part of its work, Sellafield Ltd is pioneering a new collaborative approach to meet the significant challenges presented by executing the remediation of the site at best value for the taxpayer.

This new delivery mechanism, developed by Sellafield Ltd and initiated with help from a Project Facilitation Team, including PCSG, is known as Outcome Based Contracting (OBC). It is an approach based around four cornerstones (shown in the second image, right) and is explored in more detail by our MD, Katherine Bew, in this blog for the Major Projects Association.

We have also been commissioned by AWE, alongside Nuclear Technologies, to support the delivery of the early stages of a major programme of work using a high-performance team approach.

Continued caution

Though the potential benefits of digital are significant, the sector remains alert to the barriers to change. Key among these, the 2020 NDA report stressed, was the under-estimation of the organisational change involved. “Like any other change management process, digital transformation may require strong leadership and a dedicated budget to absorb emergent risks and for employee training, communication and empowerment.”

Cyber-security is another key consideration and challenge for the industry.

But, with so much momentum behind it, it looks like the digital journey in nuclear is set to accelerate.

For further information on how PCSG supports organisations in the UK and internationally to more effectively design, build and operate their built assets through a digital, data-driven approach, please contact our Business Development Director, Olly Thomas.