Stepping into the future

27 May 2021

Rob Learney explains why the nuclear industry must enter the digital age

Distributed ledger technologies, such as blockchain, can be used to build a secure and safe waste data tracking system


THE WORLD’S POPULATION IS SKYROCKETING, but global electricity consumption is rising faster. Meeting consumer demand while honouring our all-important climate change ambitions is a huge challenge.

Meanwhile, we are witnessing technology make waves as we build an energy industry fit for the next decade — especially so in digitalising the sector.

Future-proofing nuclear as part of a sustainable energy mix is an important piece of this puzzle. How can the sector reap the rewards of the digital age?

If it were to open the door to new technologies, the nuclear industry could tackle major challenges, including cost-cutting, tracing carbon emissions and ensuring staff are equipped to carry out specialised work. But the sector has always been rather slow to embrace digital transformation: an observation echoed recently by William Magwood, director general of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), who said the nuclear industry risks being left behind if it fails to follow the example of sectors like aviation in digitalising.

Why the reticence?

Even today, the nuclear industry is largely paper based or poorly digitised. Given the long half-life of nuclear waste, planning is often done on a 10,000-year basis — with trusty pen and paper still used to track vital information in huge archives. Technology is advancing at such a pace that many believe planning for thousands of years on software that might be considered archaic in the next five is simply a waste of time.

As we know, the nuclear industry is highly regulated. From procurement to software development, processes are adopted on a ‘safety first’ basis. There are also security concerns about the management of sensitive data.

But that does not mean that innovation and safety are mutually exclusive: quite the opposite, in fact.

Sharing information meaningfully

For example, distributed ledger technologies, like blockchain, can improve coordination between disparate stakeholders in the sector through a system of trust. It makes processes more aligned, efficient and secure.

The logging and sharing of information through blockchain works like an agreement between all the parties: everyone must agree on what has happened, at what time and on who was involved, etc. Like a virtual notice board for multiple stakeholders, from mining sites to research labs, the users can share and quantify information for each other, by linking different assertions to create a unified statement of fact.

Let’s look at nuclear waste coordination as an example. At the moment, this remains bogged down in paper, with organisations communicating and storing critical information inefficiently. By enabling partners to work together to track and monitor high value assets using blockchain, we can map radiological exposure, or the movement of waste and, ultimately, uphold stringent safety standards on and off site.

Turning words into action at Sellafield

Distributed systems are highly complex, so undoubtedly a lack of understanding of how they work, or previous failed attempts to implement them meaningfully, also plays into lack of adoption. This means innovation often has to be sought outside the industry.

At Digital Catapult, a recent project involves helping Sellafield Ltd with two different challenges: closely tracking waste and materials, and monitoring industry skills to empower workers to do their jobs efficiently and safely.

We brought Sellafield Ltd, its major stakeholders and some top innovators in the blockchain space together. Work to understand their diverse challenges led to new partnerships with two cutting-edge start-ups working in the distributed systems space.

Condatis is now creating a ’nuclear passport’ using an open-source self-sovereign identity toolkit. This system will guarantee a mobile and highly skilled workforce, allowing qualified nuclear staff to move between locations while ensuring they have all requisite training and experience.

Meanwhile, Jutsuin will track the life cycle of hazardous waste and ensure information can be accessed by all relevant parties in the value chain.

The race to transform

New technologies can be complex, but with the right advice and guidance, investment reaps reward. What better way to welcome the digital age than starting with robust, trustworthy and mutually beneficial infrastructure?

Author: Rob Learney is Head of Technology – Distributed Systems, Digital Catapult

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