Nuclear’s digital transformation

26 June 2018

A digital transformation is underway in the nuclear sector, but as Valérie Faudon, explains, our industry is playing catch-up.

THE INTRODUCTION OF DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY is one of the fundamental drivers of potential growth in nuclear energy. There is real awareness that with digital we can increase the market share of nuclear power; it offers a genuine opportunity for change.

The nuclear sector should take inspiration from other industries that have already been through the digital transformation. We must also be humble enough to admit that other sectors have shifted to digital more intensely, more quickly and more comprehensively than us. There is a high level of motivation and commitment to digitalisation within the nuclear industry as a whole. But compared with aerospace, automotive and other sectors – which also face challenges regarding competitiveness, timing and meeting commitments – the nuclear industry is lagging behind and has had to play catchup over the past few years.

The French nuclear sector is currently facing some difficult challenges: from general refurbishment and how to extend the service life of the fleet, to new builds. There are the preparations needed to upgrade the French fleet, as well as the first dismantling operations, which are already underway. We need to set an example with these decommissioning projects. To prove that nuclear power is an energy of the future, we need to demonstrate that we know how to dismantle facilities when they reach the end of their service life. 

We are in the midst of some exceedingly challenging times. Against this backdrop, we need to acknowledge the uncertain times for nuclear power. France remains committed to nuclear energy, but there are still questions being asked, with competitiveness still being a vital issue.

Digitalising our operations and integrating digital technology into the nuclear industry represents an opportunity, but it is also a necessity: a necessity to meet requirements for performance, budgets, deadlines and industrial quality. Digitalisation is an opportunity because is an exceptional performance driver. 

It is a paradox to say that the nuclear industry, which produces some of the most complex machines designed by man alongside the aerospace industry and others, has fallen behind on digitalisation. Today, building a new reactor, such as the EPR, without the use of digital technology is a painstaking task.

However, digital technology is not just a way of managing the complexity of the things; it can help transform our industry in many ways. We are in the process of moving towards an approach that is much more project-focused and much more systems engineering focused. We do not need to know if we have the best civil engineers or the best mechanical engineers, we need to understand that the system we are delivering meets the expected performance requirements on time and budget. Knowing that we have designed and developed a system for a fixed cost and within a fixed deadline is even more critical, and also represents a change in the way we operate.

The shift towards a systems engineering approach and the digital transformation of our engineering methods are two things that we are doing at the same time. We still have civil, electrical or mechanical engineering issues to resolve and we need to be able to collaborate between these fundamental disciplines. When we focus on a systems engineering approach, we need 3D and 4D modelling, which requires a different kind of cooperation between engineers. When we deliver systems, and shift away from a documentation-focused style of engineering to engineering that is much more data-centric, we will need all the tools available to support this method.

One of the primary focus areas is the need to facilitate and accelerate this shift in how we organise nuclear projects, and how we arrange our engineering function to prioritise cooperation rather than focusing on exchanging documents and working within separate technical divisions.

There is now a positive mindset to transform our engineering methods, while at the same time introducing digital technologies within new nuclear facilities and France’s existing fleet. The ability to recreate digital twins of EDF’s nuclear facilities is a major benefit when it comes to preparing for general refurbishment, optimising activities, working on systems that are currently in service or on new systems that we need to install. So, for the current fleet, digitalisation will help us to operate more effectively, to manage our outages more efficiently, to minimise potential hazards and keep within the costs and deadlines specified for each operation.

Digital transformation can help us to manage our projects more effectively, to redefine the nuclear industry’s image, to integrate all generations collaborating on our systems more efficiently and thus to demonstrate that nuclear power is the way forward.  

Valérie Faudon is Executive director of the French Nuclear Society (SFEN) 

Nuclear Engineering International has published a special edition for distribution at this year¹s World Nuclear Exhibition.

The focus of the special edition is on how digital solutions, virtual reality, robotics and other emerging technologies have the potential to secure the future of nuclear power.

With existing reactors facing increasing market pressures, digitalisation and automation offer opportunities to improve efficiency and reduce costs.

Robotics, data analytics and new simulation capabilities can aid cleanup of legacy facilities. New technology is also revolutionising the workplace, and can help the nuclear industry to attract a new generation of talent to replace its ageing workforce.

Looking ahead to the next decades, innovative technologies from small modular reactors to Generation IV designs and new fusion concepts, promise to make the next generation of nuclear energy more competitive with other energy sources.

Read your World Nuclear Exhibition Special Edition - New technology encouraging excellence in nuclear energy

WNE Image: copyright EDF
WNE Image: copyright EDF

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