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Completing Nuclear Energy’s Digital Transformation

As the nuclear power industry enters it second great era of growth, a new generation of plants will make electricity using the same fundamentals of physics first harnessed some 60 years ago. But the way these plants are designed, built and operated will be enormously different from their ancestors. Today’s computer-aided design systems can “assemble” the millions of parts of a nuclear plant entirely in silicon. Whole facilities can be “built” this way, before the first shovel ever touches dirt. This approach lets builders discover and avoid bugs before they become costly physical mistakes.  Printed documentation is disappearing, too, as context sensitive software delivers the right answer, faster, to operators.

Yet the legacy of the industry’s analog roots is still with us. It can be hard to imagine, but the first generation of commercial nuclear plants was born and built in a pre-computer age, when slide rules were used to for calculations, sketches were done on graph paper and final plans came on blueprints. It’s a testament to the remarkable intelligence and dedication of the first corps of U.S. nuclear engineers that in a span of roughly 30 years, with scant computing power, they designed and built what is still today the world’s largest and most reliable fleet of commercial nuclear reactors.

For all their ingenuity, though, analog-era nuclear designers were never able to crack a problem that still dogs the industry today, that of information immobility. Back then, designing, building and documenting a single piece of equipment could easily result in scores of blueprints and stacks of three-ring binders. Any amendment to those designs created a cascade of changes that rippled through the paper documents, requiring veritable armies of specialists to swap new information into the archives. Errors and omissions were inevitable.

Information immobility can even lead to the gradual, unintentional erosion of knowledge. For instance, back then, when the designer-builders had to hand over the keys for a new facility to its owner-operators, transferring the plant’s “operating manual” literally meant backing up a truck and unloading tons of documents. Often those materials went unused, though, as technicians learned practices on the job. It’s no wonder that in fleet-wide audits following the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, many facilities spent lots of money to reconcile their documentation with actual processes at their plants.

Today, these problems are much diminished, but by no means eliminated. Indeed, while there’s been no new nuclear construction in the U.S. for some 30 years, design and operations software has been advancing continuously in the automotive, shipbuilding and aerospace industries, often subsidized by the government. In state-of-the-art maintenance systems being developed by the military, for example, when a technician looks at a piece of equipment, visual recognition software can ID the gear and display relevant data and instructions in a wearable display. The rendering the software calls up may have been first created years earlier by a design engineer, and then later on enhanced with new data, such as supplier details, material qualities, or service records. The nuclear industry is poised to benefit from this investment by borrowing the best of these innovations.

To benefit from these advances though, the nuclear industry has to overcome multiple challenges. Even as industry players learn how to retrofit these technologies into existing plants, they also need to adapt and transplant their best practices into tomorrow’s new reactors. From China to the Middle East and Latin America, more than 60 green field plants are under construction in 15 countries, with many more in planning stages.

For new projects, the opportunity exists to build information architectures from the ground up that will take advantage of the sorts of cutting-edge technologies described above. Indeed, one advantage of creating an adaptable software foundation at the outset is that the cost to develop advanced applications later on is much lower than in facilities that don’t fully digitize and integrate their operations early on. Such a move can also lower ongoing long-term upgrade costs. Consider that the lifecycle of a plant’s info tech—the mix of software and hardware used to manage a facility—is from five to 15 years. So in the typical 60-year lifespan of a nuclear plant, it will go through many info-tech refresh cycles.

Analog-era plants can see big benefits too. With U.S. reactors leading the way, many of the world’s more than 430 existing nuclear power plants will go through a process to relicense and extend their operations by another 10, 20 or 30 years. These steps open doors to substantial upgrades to a nuclear facility’s physical plant and its digital nervous system.

U.S. nuclear sites have shown the fruits of such efforts. Thanks in part to a steady commitment to process optimization and software investment, U.S. operators have improved operations to levels of safety and output unequaled elsewhere. In the early 1970s, the industry’s average capacity factor—how much energy the fleet produces as a share of its maximum potential—was less than than 50 percent. Last year, it exceeded 90 percent.

These are metrics China and other new builders are eager to match. As they forge ahead, new plants have the potential to reduce risk in every respect—from design and construction costs, to operations and public safety—by adapting the best, long-developed practices in the U.S. and Europe. The next generation of plants also has the opportunity to go one better, by building in digital intelligence that deeply links the design, construction and operations of plants in ways no earlier plants have done. The potential rewards are higher safety, lower building now, and lower operating costs into the future.

Neil Gerber is a Global Power Generation Solution Executive in IBM’s Energy & Utilities Industry.

Neil Gerber
Neil Gerber is a Global Power Generation Solution Executive in IBM’s Energy & Utilities Industry.
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10 thoughts on “Completing Nuclear Energy’s Digital Transformation

  1. We must stop the proliferation of nuclear energy and the farce that nuclear energy has anything to do with alternative, environmentally sustainable energy category. it is the single worst solution available, worst than fossil fuels in the dangers and adverse impact it will have on life and this planet.

  2. nuclear power has repeatedly been proven to be a hazard to the people who live there. the nuclear industry has huge control over government controls and much of the smaller, though dangers, misshaps go unreported. in addition, i would never trust a corporate executive to put truth before profit.

  3. China & S.Koera are today ‘building’/selling nuclear plants based on old American & French technolgy, and are both trying in all earnest to get Africa (South Africa) to buy these cheep & nasties for its urgently needed power requirements going forward. What are the 1st Worlds Nuclear Leaders doing to prevent this profit/influence-before-safety strategy from taking route and opening up the possibility for nuclear catastrophy on a major scale at the southern tip of Africa ? International best practice and the best design & safety standards should be the only criteria !

  4. I suggest those who think that nuclear power is hazardous to the public or those who work in the industry verify their statements. No one has ever died in the US from commercial nuclear power. However, dozens of people die each year from plant explosions at natural gas and coal facilities and in the mines. Meanwhile, those facilities are carbon-emitting, unlike nuclear power which only releases water vapor into the atmosphere. Also hazardous to the public is the radiation emitted from coal power plants, which is one hundred (or more) times more than that of a nuclear power plant.

    You are entitled to feel strongly against nuclear power for carbon-free electricity generation, but those opinions should be based on fact.

  5. The effects of fossil fuel power plants are a lot worse than Allyson suggests. According to the EPA, fossil (coal and gas) plants cause ~25,000 deaths every single year in the US alone. They are also responsible for 40% of our CO2 emissions.

    Miriam’s statements are completely baseless. Nuclear power plants have no affect at all on local populations. They have never killed a member of the public and have never had any measurable impact on public health. They emit no CO2. All scientific studies have shown that nuclear’s overall environmental impacts are tiny compared to fossil fuels and similar to that of renewables. Nuclear is clean energy, by any rational definition.

  6. It is not true that no one died from a commercial nuclear power plant – you must think beyond the plant to the whole fuel cycle, mining, processing, generation and dispoal. Not to say solar, wind or even energy efficiency can meet all of our needs going forward but giving the level of subsidy need for nuclear verses true renewable energy it is conceivable along with biomass etc. it could meet our future energy needs, doesn’t it make sense to invest in new, smart technology verses clunky nuclear technology instead of tweaking outmoded 50ies technology? And let’s not forget, solar and wind etc. don’t need elaborate evacuation plans.

  7. Neither the article nor any of the comments even mentioned using thorium instead of uranium for nuclear reactors. The liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) would eliminate most of the objections to nuclear power. For more information, do a google search on “thorium reactor.”

    Moreover, there is no waste problem. The real problem is that we are not properly managing the nuclear fuel cycle. What is often considered waste is not really waste – it is unused fuel plus other valuable elements and should be reprocessed.

    Our present uranium fuel cycle uses less than one percent of the energy available in the natural uranium. Instead of using reactors which can use natural uranium for fuel, we are using reactors which must used enriched uranium, so during the enrichment process, we are throwing away most of the U238 and much of the U235. It makes no sense.

  8. Ron, major construction projects and the mining of iron, etc. do result in injuries and that is true whether you are building nuclear plants or wind turbines. In fact wind turbines use 11 times the steel and 4.5 times the concrete as nuclear for comparable power generation (Professor Per Peterson, Chair Dept of Nuclear Engineering at UC Berkeley). Wind and Solar (Biomass hasn’t a prayer) can supply our energy needs but only at enormous cost. Costs so high they simply won’t be borne, with the alternative being coal (and I don’t mean ‘clean’ coal) or nuclear. Nuclear is to be greatly preferred.

    What part of nuclear technology do you find ‘clunky’. These are the most advanced machines ever built. There are fantastic ideas for improvements in reactor technology (liquid-fluoride thorium reactors, integral fast reactors, small fast reactors, etc.) that can and will supply mankind with abundant cheap energy for millenia. You called nuclear a 50’s technology. I could just as well call windmills a medieval technology. Finally, evacuation plans are not necessary. People may insist on them but that doesn’t make them necessary. Containment buildings make any large scale release of radiation impossible.

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