The UK has been a driving force in the nuclear industry for over half a century. The first nuclear plant began generating electricity in 1956. Calder Hall was the world’s first nuclear power station to deliver electricity in commercial quantities providing power for nearly 47 years. The UK continued to develop and build nuclear power plants well into the 70s and 80s. As these sites approach the end of their generation lifetimes, the critical question is, how do we decommission these sites cost-effectively, and with appropriately skilled workforce? The UK has set out its plan for energy as a whole in the Energy white paper on the UK government website Energy White Paper (publishing.service.gov.uk)
Digital technology has seen a huge acceleration in recent years, something the earliest plants didn’t have access to, and their digital footprint is not at the standard of 21st Century new builds. Data standards and configuration control are sporadic across sites and disciplines and in most cases, 3D modelling is not complete. Even with today’s technology, the challenges faced are huge and pose several questions.
Where do you find the people? The UK has a shortage of engineers with the technical skills required. The nuclear workforce is aging and forecasts show the industry is losing 3900 people per year mainly due to retirement, the nuclear industry needs to attract nearly 9000 new people every year, to meet the demands of the future. This is a sizeable challenge, that if not met, could create huge competition for skilled workers, pushing up labour prices, in turn impacting the costs involved.
How do you continue to meet changing safety regulations? Not only regulation surrounding radioactive material, but also from other more common industrial materials and the personal hazards involved in performing tasks. The complexity involved in both constructing and decommissioning power plants is immense with human error being an unpredictable variant the operators find difficult to mitigate.
How do you stay within budget and remain sustainable? The average cost to decommission a nuclear power station stands between £3-8 Billion. With the cost of materials, labour, and energy skyrocketing coupled with the need for a new deep geological deposit facility, there needs to be optimisation of every process, every use of resource, and every decision made.
These are three of the critical questions that need answering now, there needs to be a solution that can withstand the test of time. There is no doubt nuclear is vital to the future of energy in the UK, we do not possess the luxury of consistent green power from wind or solar, Fossil fuels are rapidly depleting and damaging our already struggling planet. So what is the solution?
With the previously mentioned acceleration in technology, sites due for decommissioning need to be digitised allowing the operator to bring the plant in line with the data-centric thread that accompanies new build projects. Digitising the assets will allow the operator to transform productivity and demonstrate true business sustainability, through live monitoring as the decommission is carried out. Imagine the time and resources an operator would save if they used the digital solutions to automate and optimise complex lifts, manoeuvers, and schedules allowing time on site to be spent on value-added work, maximising the finite skilled labour available.
Not only would digitising the assets improve sustainability, but it would also increase safety. Being able to pre-plan human tasks, train and monitor the site all in a digital world could reduce risk significantly. Scheduling optimisation means operators can plan routes for staff to avoid exposure, planning what tasks will be done and by whom in a virtual world allows operators to ensure staff can work in the specified environments and most importantly get home safely.
Staying on time and budget has and will always be a huge challenge for the nuclear industry there are so many complex multi-mechanical sequences that need to be completed, a multitude of machines or components that can fail plus hundreds of contractors involved. The complexity is unimaginable but in a digital world, these problems can be simulated and mitigated ahead of time.
When all of this technology is put together it provides so many benefits to people, business models, and decommissioning as a whole. Digital worlds may seem like a dream for the future, but it is here now and will take us into the next century and beyond.