IN THE WAKE OF THE Fukushima disaster of March 2011, many new nuclear programmes were delayed or repealed. Governments globally, and particularly those in Western Europe, instigated broad-brush policy changes while also conducting substantial safety reviews and plant modifications. As a result, plans for construction of new plant fell away. 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. Meanwhile the tide of safety concerns washed forecasted generation away and a potential footprint of new nuclear was largely filled by grains of renewables instead.

Industry was thorough in its response. Over the preceding years, the World Association of Nuclear Operators had rolled out 12 projects which saw 460 commercial power stations complete around 6000 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 the clean-up at Fukushima continues, but new nuclear programmes are re-emerging. China and India are key growth markets because they need to meet growing energy demand. By 2040, $1.1 trillion is forecast to be invested in new nuclear plants and China and India will account for 93% of the net production increase. Should China realise its medium-term targets, it will overtake the USA in terms of capacity by 2030.

For both China and India, safety remains paramount. In a nuclear white paper, released in September 2019, China said that to achieve greater progress and better utilisation 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 new tranche of nuclear generation also represents an opportunity to bring about an enhanced image of nuclear safety. The digitalisation of much of today’s energy industry has created widespread change in the years since 2011. It could have a positive impact on the build of these forthcoming plants — whether they are built simultaneously or sequentially.

This area is where technological innovation can lend a helping hand. Gaining insight, sharing and integrating lessons to reduce risk, has become more straightforward.

The digitalisation 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. For example, Lloyd’s Register’s digital platforms encapsulate a deep sector knowledge that can only be gained through years of nuclear operation experience. But more than that, the data can be combined with international best practice, site-specific data and an engineer’s own experience. Combined, these layers of data unlock insight and analysis and replaces the many analyst hours or days it would have taken on previous builds to make fault trees, run simulations or do other complex tasks.

Digital technologies also dissipate 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 each component and its failure profile — a task made doubly hard by the exacting requirements of the nuclear sector. Digitalisation has encapsulated this knowledge and granted engineers access to it. You no longer need to be a mathematical specialist to run a reliability or risk analysis.

The introduction of autopilots in other industries show that this is much more common practice than one might think. And these types of systems get better with time, as they include more data, for example tailoring to one nuclear site, while benefiting from visibility of all other sites where a technology is deployed.

When it comes to managing a fleet, sharing data improves competence, by establishing consistent risk modelling throughout.

Ageing plants stand to benefit as much as new ones. By their nature, risk profiles change over time, but the digitalisation of data allows risk managers to run more accurate simulations and better dynamic modelling for existing assets. In fact, model-based risk analysis software that supports this approach is already used in many existing nuclear sites in France.

The future of nuclear does not need to look like the past. New platforms mean better safety and risk assessment standards and practices at every step, from design to decommissioning. The latest innovations bring to market a new generation of tools that are customisable — becoming tools to make tools.

Platforms like these make available a depth of analysis that was not humanly possible. With digitalisation in its corner, the nuclear industry is poised to shed its tainted image of the past.

Author information: Ola Bäckström, Lloyd’s Register