Above: It’s not necessarily digital technologies that are risky, it’s the people operating them

Fully decarbonising the energy system will require a massive increase in new carbon-free electricity generation to be built each year. In the UK, for example, the net zero target date is 2035 that means up to 16 GW of new generating assets must be built each year, every year. It’s an unprecedented feat and equal to what was built in the five years between 2017 and 2021. Collectively, it is the equivalent of building the UK’s entire energy system twice over, in a little more than a decade.

Nuclear has been identified as a crucial player in achieving net zero, however we now need to find ways to not only increase the pace of new build developments but also extend the useful life of existing plants.

The answer lies with digital transformation. Digital can make a difference at every point of the nuclear lifecycle, and so it’s imperative we embrace these tools and the benefits they bring. But several barriers stand in the way, many of which involve changing attitudes.

Focus on ROI, not upfront cost

Take business models, for example. The adoption of digital tools requires an upfront cost, which could lead to a perception that digital is expensive. But that’s absolutely not the reality.

Common commercial models often don’t recognise the benefits of digital; so they need to be viewed through a longer-term lens.

If a digital twin strategy is developed and implemented during the design phase of a nuclear power plant, for instance, the data can also be harnessed throughout the decades-long operational, maintenance and decommissioning phases. Likewise, investing in robotic systems to sort and segregate radioactive items is far more cost effective if the purchase occurs sooner rather than later. This approach allows operators to get the maximum value from their digital investment by getting the most use from the system.

Reviving a sense of urgency

Digital transformation should be an urgent priority, as the nuclear sector has much to achieve in a very short time frame. Many decision-makers dislike uncertainty as much as high costs and the dramatic changes instigated by the pandemic may leave them craving processes and solutions they know and can trust. This is deterring them from further investments.

Instead, the focus should be on further accelerating the digital adoption catalysed by the pandemic and embracing the benefits these technologies have provided.

For example, the need to keep on-site personnel to a minimum during the pandemic strengthened the business case for the use of reality capture technology. This had been incubated over the previous decade and provided off-site staff with a detailed view of the plant without needing to leave their desk.

These types of solutions have now become business-as-usual tools, fuelling improved efficiency, better worker safety and a reduction in travel-related carbon emissions.

There is much the nuclear sector can learn from the rapid progress made over the last few years, which only came about thanks to the sense of urgency and necessity the pandemic brought.

The power of incentives

Clearly decision-makers need to change their mindsets, and a way to support this could be government incentives or mandates.

In the UK this approach proved successful with the introduction of the Construction Strategy in 2011, which mandated that all firms working on government projects must be building information modelling (BIM) level 2 certified by 2016. Over time this became an industry-wide standard and has led to the UK being viewed as a global leader in this area.

With mandates, or incentives that lower risk or take high upfront costs out of the equation, significant value can be unlocked. For example, government encouragement towards the handover of design and construction data and establishment of an operational digital twin could reduce operation, maintenance and decommissioning costs and maximise low-carbon generation. We want to see nuclear become the industry that leads to net zero goals while minimising costs to the consumer.

A culture of fear

Another barrier to digital transformation is fear, particularly in areas such as AI, robotics and cyber security.

Many working in the nuclear industry – particularly those later in their career – approach robots and AI with caution, believing they’ll make their work more complex or perhaps replace their role entirely.

This is far off the mark. Robots are being introduced to work alongside, or ‘augment’, rather than replace workers – lowering the risk of undertaking the most dangerous tasks and freeing up staff from mundane, repetitive jobs to work on more creative or subjective tasks. The scale of the net-zero challenge means that we need every available tool in order to cost-effectively deliver new-build projects, generating assets and in decommissioning.

There is also a fear moving to digital will introduce new risks from cybercriminals. The reality is, according to Verizon’s 2022 Data Breach Incident Report, that 82% of breaches involved the human element, for example using social engineering techniques such as phishing to trick users into installing malware. It’s not the digital technologies that are risky, it’s the people operating them.


Many of the barriers to digital transformation can be overcome through education and communication. Training will help staff better understand how new technologies will benefit both them and the business, as well the industry at large. Equally as important is investing in upskilling and reskilling workers to use them effectively.

With an unprecedented build rate required to keep the lights on and a looming skills gap, we can’t really afford not to embrace digital. Success though, will be down to people and the work culture more than business models and the technology itself. Involving staff throughout the digitalisation process will grow, not only their confidence and comfort with new technologies, but likely generate greater advocacy of digital transformation projects.

Author: Sam Stephens, Head of Digital, Nuclear at SNC-Lavalin and Atkins