How drawing digital insights from nuclear’s past can create a safer industry

Control room at Chinese nuclear plant. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

POWERGEN International wants nuclear content at the event this December. The call for abstracts is now open!

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Nearly a decade after the major earthquake and tsunami that irreversibly damaged four of Fukushima Daiichi’s nuclear reactors in Japan, China and India are readying themselves for a new era of nuclear. How can digital innovations aggregate data from sources past, present and future to build a dynamic understanding of risk?

In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster of March 2011, many new nuclear programs were delayed or significantly repealed. Governments globally, and particularly those in Western Europe, instigated broad-brush policy changes while also conducting substantial safety reviews and nuclear power plant modifications. As a result, the expected construction of new generation fell.

Akin to a footprint on the shoreline – the tide of safety concerns washed away the predicted generation – and in many places the imprint was filled by ‘grains’ of renewables instead. Indeed China, which felt the fallout of the disaster quite acutely, halted the approval of all new nuclear power plants for several years while new safety standards were put in place.  

Industry was also thorough in its response. Over the preceding years, the World Association of Nuclear Operators initiated the rollout of 12 projects which saw 460 commercial power stations complete approximately 6,000 safety enhancement activities. As well as improving the overall margin of nuclear safety, the projects create new insights for managers across functions.

As we look to the 2020s, while the clean-up at Fukushima continues, new nuclear programs are re-emerging. With the need to meet growing energy consumption demands, China and India are key growth markets. By 2040, $1.1 trillion of new nuclear plants are forecast to be built and China and India will account for 93 percent of the net production increase. Should China realize its medium-term targets, it will overtake the USA in terms of capacity by 2030.

Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in India

For both countries, safety remains paramount, but this new tranche of nuclear generation also represents an opportunity – an opportunity to bring about an enhanced image of nuclear safety. The digitalization of much of today’s energy industry is one aspect that has created widespread change in the intervening years since 2011. It’s also a change that could have a positive impact on the build of these forthcoming plants – whether they are built simultaneously or consequentially.

It’s a vision that China appears to share. In its governmental nuclear whitepaper, released in September 2019, it outlined that to achieve greater progress and better utilization of nuclear energy it must first “respond to the challenges it poses and ensure nuclear safety”. Of particular note is China’s approach to risk prevention:

“A risk-informed and problem-oriented review system has been established, and efforts are being made to enhance the capacity of independent verification and calculations, probabilistic safety assessment, and risk assessment.”

This area in particular is where technological innovation can lend a helping hand. Gaining insight, and indeed sharing and integrating lessons to reduce risk, has become much more straightforward compared to 10, five or even two years ago.

The digitalization of plant designs is one area of risk assessment that can now be completed automatically. The latest technologies consider more than just schematics and equations, much to the benefit of this new era of nuclear. For example, Lloyd’s Register’s digital platforms encapsulate a deep sector knowledge that can only be gained through a great number of years of nuclear operation experience. But more than that, this data can be combined with international best practice, site-specific data and even an engineer’s own experience too. Combined together, these layers of data unlock an unprecedented level of insight and analysis. This replaces the many analyst hours, even days, it would have taken on previous builds to hand-make fault trees, run simulations etc.

Digital technologies also benefit the industry by dissipating some of the ‘mystique’ behind risk assessment. For many years, risk assessment required a high-level of abstraction and an elite team of analysts fully immersed in the ways of every single component and their failure profiles. A heady task for any risk analyst, but one made doubly hard by the exacting requirements of nuclear. Instead, the digitalization of the process has encapsulated this innate knowledge and granted the everyday engineer access to its insights. You no longer need to be a mathematical genius to run a reliability or risk analysis. 

If there’s an element of industry reservation, you only have to look at the introduction of autopilot to remember that it is much more common practice than one might initially think. Further, it is these types of systems that can only get better with time, as more data is inputted. Digitalization allows for the same level of tailoring by nuclear site, while benefiting from an innate knowledge gained by having visibility of all other sites it is deployed upon. When it comes to managing fleets, sharing data improves competence, by establishing consistent risk modelling throughout.

Similarly, it is not just new nuclear that stands to benefit, but aging plants too. By their very nature risk profiles morph over time, but the digitalization of data allows for risk managers to run more accurate simulations and better dynamic modelling for existing assets too. In fact, model-based risk analysis software that supports this approach is already used in many existing nuclear sites in France.

With digitalization, the future of nuclear does not need to look like the past. New platforms mean ever enhancing safety and risk assessment standards and practices at every step, from design through decommissioning. Indeed, the latest innovations bring to market a new generation of tools – tools so customisable that they are, in essence, tools to make tools. As with many digital innovations, platforms like these make available a depth of analysis that was simply not humanly possible before.

For nuclear, a new era dawns. With digitalization in its corner, the industry is poised to shed its tainted image of the past. And it is also through the past that digitalization will elevate safety standards to allow nuclear to fully contribute to the low carbon futures of China, India and beyond. 

About the author: Ola Bäckström is vice president, principal consultant and software manager with Lloyd’s Register Consulting. He has played a major role in developing algorithms used in safety analysis at power plants.

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POWERGEN International, which will be December 8-10 in Orlando, is seeking technical and wide-ranging content on the next era of nuclear energy. Click here to see the POWERGEN call for abstracts. Deadline is February 24.

[1] Nuclear Safety in China

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