Going digital

28 February 2018

The UK’s new Industrial Strategy and Nuclear Sector Deal aim for rapid growth in advanced computing and simulation to beat foreign competition, Ian Jackson explains.

BRITISH PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY’S Conservative government published its Industrial Strategy in November 2017. The Industrial Strategy as a whole focuses on big data, artificial intelligence and computation skills to help propel Britain into global leadership of the industries of the future. In parallel, the government’s Nuclear Industry Council – an advisory body chaired jointly by Lord Hutton, chairman of the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) and Richard Harrington, Minister for Energy and Industry – published proposals for a ‘Nuclear Sector Deal’ between government and industry. The NIA also published an Economic Impact Report, highlighting the contribution that the nuclear sector makes to the British economy. The timing is significant. Japan, South Korea and China are all preparing to begin nuclear power plant construction projects in the UK using their Advanced BWR (ABWR), APR1400, and Hualong (HPR1000) technology, respectively.

Japan was granted Generic Design Assessment (GDA) licensing certification for its UK ABWR reactor design by the UK’s Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) in December 2017. GDA assessment of China’s HPR1000 design is also underway and entered the second phase of technical assessment in November. South Korea entered preferred bidder talks with Toshiba in December 2017 to acquire its UK nuclear development company NuGen and deploy the APR1400 reactor technology. EDF has already begun construction of its EPR reactor at Hinkley Point C. The unanswered question is how much these foreign-backed projects will contribute towards British nuclear jobs over the next two decades. This point was strongly made by the UK House of Commons Public Accounts Committee in November 2017, which recommended that the government put in place a plan for tracking nuclear job creation and the strategic and economic benefits of nuclear build. The UK is also funding some industrial innovation projects, to develop artificial intelligence and robot systems for extreme nuclear environments.

An expanding UK nuclear industry is a multi-billion-pound market, but the UK opportunity is threatened by competition from established Asian supply chains. The government’s strategy is to work with the UK nuclear industry to drive down the costs of nuclear power while building UK supply chains. The government wants lower nuclear costs and higher productivity.

As a starting point, the proposed Nuclear Sector Deal aims to reduce UK nuclear build costs by 20% to 30% by 2030. However, government and the nuclear industry differ on how to achieve this. The Nuclear Sector Deal proposes a combination of five cost-cutting measures to deliver the 30% target; cost efficiencies from ‘fleet’ reactor build (10%); lower costs of capital (another 10%); and incremental improvements in productivity, innovation and the development cycle (together around 10%). The cumulative effect should be a 30% cost reduction. But the government is more focused on achieving savings through better productivity gains and digital solutions, which are both key pillars of its new Industrial Strategy.

Better productivity through digital manufacture

The Industrial Strategy signals a major policy shift towards digital skills and the data economy. The strategy is driven by the need to increase UK productivity and competitiveness. However, the NIA says in its report that the productivity of British nuclear sector workers is already very high at around £104k gross value added per full-time equivalent worker (GVA per FTE). This puts them in the most productive 10% of workers in the UK. The real challenge is to improve the competitiveness of the UK nuclear supply chain against cheaper foreign competitors, particularly from Asia.

The UK hopes to do that by investing in digital skills – particularly in high fidelity nuclear computation, advanced simulation and digital twins. Reactor components from the UK nuclear supply chain will be manufactured robotically in automated modular engineering facilities, under strict quality control, using component designs that have been simulated and tested in advanced virtual environments to withstand accidents. Manufactured components will have very high added intellectual value, with associated high productivity, but physical production costs will be kept low by large production runs. Combining data technology with manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing could result in nuclear manufacturing processes that are fully digitally synthetic and do not involve any physical labour. Instead, tomorrow’s nuclear engineers will more likely be computer programmers adept at simulating complex nuclear reactor environments.

Virtual equipment qualification

In March 2013 an analysis by Oxford Economics estimated that the UK might be able to deliver 45% to 50% of nuclear supply chain requirements. However, in the real world, the major obstacle is equipment qualification – necessary for manufacturers to sell qualified products to UK nuclear power developers. Most nuclear qualification testing is undertaken in the country of original equipment manufacturer (OEM). An OEM component manufactured in China will be qualification tested in China and then supplied to Chinese builds overseas.

Around 86% of components for domestic Chinese nuclear reactor builds come from China. The same applies for South Korean and Japan. Under the present arrangements in the UK, equipment qualification testing data will mostly be utilised from reference plants already operating overseas – mainly in Asia. This has locked out UK manufacturers from supplying high added-value, safety- critical, nuclear-qualified equipment for current and future UK nuclear build. It could also lock British manufacturers out of future nuclear export opportunities.

The apparently weak participation of the UK nuclear supply chain in the construction of Hinkley Point C strongly suggests a market failure in the provision of qualification. The demand for equipment qualification testing services in the UK has been relatively low since Sizewell B was completed in 1995 and most equipment qualification for UK components was undertaken well before construction began in 1987. Low demand over the past 30 years has led to a failure in the provision of equipment qualification testing services in the UK. There is a narrow window of opportunity over the next five years (2018–2023) to put the necessary infrastructure in place, to meet UK nuclear procurement lead times. A delay beyond this will probably mean most UK nuclear procurement is supplied from abroad. Without intervention, the UK nuclear equipment market risks collapse and the UK nuclear manufacturing supply chain will wind down over the next decade.

The government must act decisively now by funding equipment qualification facilities not supplied by the market. Fortunately, the Nuclear Sector Deal recognises  

this risk and proposes to establish a facility from April 2018 with financial support from the government for the first five years. The facility will develop a national method for qualifying components for use in safety-critical applications and establish common sector benchmarks for each component so that the same method can be used for new-build, defence and decommissioning.

The facility could undertake advanced virtual testing, verification and validation of any safety critical nuclear equipment, under any simulated harsh environment test conditions, for all UK reactor types. It would simulate reactor accident and harsh environmental conditions for any current and future UK reactor system including PWRs, ABWRs, small modular reactors, advanced modular reactors and high-temperature reactors. The facility would also directly apply the principles of the data economy and partnerships to boost UK nuclear manufacturing jobs, as set out in the Industrial Strategy.

An equipment qualification facility with advanced simulation capabilities also offers government another advantage – overseas testing data on foreign reactor components used in the UK can be independently checked and verified. The facility can build a virtual model of the foreign components and then simulate their performance under reactor accident conditions. Any components failing the simulation tests could be notified to the ONR. This provides government and its public stakeholders with an extra layer of reassurance that reactor systems deployed in the UK will perform safely and reliably.

Looking ahead

To best serve the government, the UK nuclear supply chain, foreign reactor developers building power plants in Britain, and nuclear export markets overseas, UK industry must become conversant with a wide variety of reactor simulation technologies, construction design codes and simulation models.

Advanced computing, modelling and simulation are enablers for a broad range of nuclear science and engineering applications, including equipment qualification, reactor component performance monitoring, reactor physics, heat transport thermal hydraulics, fuel and fuel channel thermal mechanical effects, fuel integrity, fission product release, radiation physics, reactor chemistry, severe accident analysis and the geological disposal of nuclear waste.

Simulations will have to encompass design-basis and beyond-design-basis accidents, as well as normal operating conditions, for the entire reactor system, from fuel behaviour up to and including containment performance. Advanced simulations will also have to consider in-core cooling systems, hydrogen behaviour (including detonation) and mitigation techniques for severe accident conditions. Integration with other capabilities – particularly new developments in remote sensing and autonomous sensing techniques on operating power stations – will enable the development of inspection and continuous monitoring technologies for large power reactors, next-generation advanced reactors, as well as safety and sustainability evaluations for advanced smaller energy systems. 


The Nuclear Sector Deal: Nuclear Industry Council Proposals to Government for a Sector Deal. Nuclear Industry Council.
7 December 2017.

Economic Impact Report. Nuclear Industry Association and Oxford Economics. 4 December 2017.

Industrial Strategy: Building a Britain Fit for the Future. HM Government. 27 November 2017.

Hinkley Point C. Third Report of Session 2017–2019. UK House of Commons. Committee of Public Accounts. November 2017.

The Economic Benefit of Improving the UK’s Nuclear Supply Chain Capabilities. Oxford Economics and ATKINS.
March 2013. 

Author details: Ian Jackson, Nuclear Consultant, Jackson Associates International 

UK Inspecting the galleries at Hinkley Point C in September (Photo: EDF Energy)
UK The Design Acceptance Certificate for the UK ABWR being signed by the UK’s Chief Nuclear Inspector Mark Foy
UK China has aspirations to build its HPR1000 at Bradwell in Essex
UK South Korea had been picked as preferred bidder to buy NuGen, a Toshiba subsidiary that plans to build a nuclear plant at Moorside in northwest England

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