The race to meet our net-zero target means nuclear is back in favour.

But the sector must embrace digitalised techniques and processes if it is to help us build back better , writes Neill Pawsey.

The image of nuclear technology has long suffered: The fictional Godzilla (the destructive sea monster empowered by nuclear radiation), the 2011 Fukushima disaster and the huge cost involved in the construction of new plants, have all contributed to its popularity problem.

In the UK, the outlook for nuclear had looked bleak: All but one of our current fleet of 15 reactors are scheduled to be retired by 2030 and only one new plant, Hinkley Point C in Somerset, is under construction.

But the tide appears to be turning: The energy crisis and the determination to realise our net-zero commitment by 2050, has thrown nuclear back into the spotlight as a form of reliable, low-carbon energy production.

In last month’s autumn statement, the government announced that it will make its first direct investment in a large-scale nuclear reactor since 1995. Ministers pledged to plough up to £1.7bn of taxpayers’ money into a new power plant – most likely the planned £20 billion Sizewell C plant in Suffolk.

Another exciting development for nuclear’s supporters are the Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) being developed by organisations including Rolls-Royce. With these, the bulk of the construction work can be carried out in factories  and the components transported to site for assembly. An announcement is expected later this week on the construction of an initial four SMRs, backed by a consortium of investors.

The benefits offered by SMRs  – including a reduction in construction time and cost – were outlined in an article written last year by Dr Fiona Rayment OBE, Chief Science and Technology Officer at the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL). She emphasised though that, to meet demand, these SMRs would be needed alongside larger plants like Hinkley Point C – not instead of them.

Nuclear – no exception

Nuclear plants are vast construction projects, requiring precise work and programmes spanning multiple years. The median construction time for nuclear reactors to complete between 2016-2019 was nearly 17 years. This makes innovations like the SMRs essential. An acceleration in its uptake of digitalised processes and techniques across the design and construction process is also key to a revived sector.

The nuclear industry has traditionally been reluctant to embrace digital transformation. Concerns about cost and cyber security and traditional mindsets have all been cited as reasons for the slow pace of adoption. Now, leading stakeholders from across the sector, including regulatory bodies, are working to dispel unfounded concerns and identify solutions to the barriers that currently exist.

“Digital transformation will be pivotal in many industries over the next decades. The nuclear industry is not an exception to this,” Dr Fiona Rayment, recently said in a keynote address.

A report published by the NEA last year, Unlocking reductions in the construction costs of nuclear,  highlighted the “advances in computer power and information systems” that have enabled organisations across all sectors to “rethink the way they create value” and to enhance existing business process. Benefits for the nuclear sector of these advances, it said, could range from increased productivity to reduced risk of re-work and quick retrieval of information. Promising digital tools it said included “BIM systems, multidimensional tools and digital twins.”

Despite its reluctance to modernise, the sector may arguably stand more to gain than other sectors from the wide-spread introduction of innovative digital techniques and processes. This is due to the sheer size and complexity of nuclear projects, the number of different parties involved, the crippling costs of financing the projects and the critical need to retain and protect information for decades down the line.

The ability of digital processes to support the provision of accurate, timely information to satisfy the nuclear site licence conditions granted by the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) is another core response to the ‘why digital?’ question.

Capture, retention and protection of all necessary documents, record, authorities, and certificates for many decades, is greatly helped for example through the document management systems and audit trails which are a key feature of the overall BIM process. Arrangements for regular and systematic examination inspection, maintenance and testing of plan are also enabled through the BIM process with its feedback loop of data.

The barriers and overcoming them

At a recent online workshop held by the NEA, the key barriers to digital were highlighted  and potential routes to overcome them explored, by participants drawn from across the international nuclear sector. The barriers included the need to install digital systems that are sustainable, cost effectiveness, security considerations and the ‘people factor’ – cultural resistance to accepted ways of working in what is a phenomenally complex and constrained industry.

“Digital transformation is never simple, and even less in the nuclear industry,” explained Vincent Champain, Senior Executive Vice President, Information Technology, Digital Performance and New Business, Framatome, in his presentation. Hindering the pace of digital take-up, he said were factors such as competition / sovereignty constraints making  cross-country and cross-industry collaboration more difficult; The introduction of more agile methods was also challenging for the sector due to “complex norms” that existed.

Workarounds he suggested, included collaboration around topics that did not raise such issues such as standards for data exchange. The identification by industry of common topics on which members are ready to share was also important, he said.

In her presentation, Jennifer Edey, VP Site Services at Bruce Power, Canada’s only private sector nuclear generator stated: “These large transformative digital efforts combined have high cost and duration but have massive payback in the long term.” These included, she said, design, construction and operational cost reduction and soft cost savings through increased equipment reliability, productivity and safety.

Another digital champion is Sellafield Ltd. In an October 2020 presentation, Sellafield is Going Digital, it highlighted that while  it had “embraced technology and new ways of working for years” it recognised it could “go much further to drive acceleration and efficiency” as part of its enterprise transformation.

PCSG

At PCSG, our expert team has supported a number of nuclear projects in their effort to put a data-driven, 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.

We also supported Sellafield Ltd with its introduction of an innovative approach to project delivery designed to accelerate remediation of its Cumbrian site and deliver the works at best value for the taxpayer. You can read more about that here in a blog by Katherine Bew for the Major Projects Association.

As the spotlight turns once again to nuclear, we look forward to supporting efforts to move the industry into the next phase of its digital journey.

 To learn more about our work supporting nuclear organisations to develop and embed digital strategies please contact Matt.Blackwell@pcsg.co.uk.