Embracing new technologies to improve economics of nuclear

Many high-tech industries have been quick to adopt digital technologies like artificial intelligence and virtual reality, using them to save money, improve their profit margins and thereby their economic competitivity. Using new digital technologies is likely to be a way to make substantial cost savings and therefore improve the economics of the operations of existing nuclear power plants. However, the nuclear industry has not yet engaged fully with these new technologies and that is something the Global Forum for Nuclear Innovation has set out to change.

As part of 2022 Forum events in July, the IAEA held a Technical Meeting at Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Station in the United Kingdom. At the two-day meeting “Fostering Innovation for the Sustainability of the Existing Fleet of Nuclear Power Reactors”, participants presented novel technical solutions to better address the needs of aging plants, such as through designing altered reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) tools to assist in planning and maintenance of nuclear plants. Many organizations are also exploring ways to make the best use of machine learning applications and implementing successful programmes to empower and encourage employees to pursue innovative solutions.

“In building operational resilience, it is vital to understand the importance of investing in the skills and competencies of existing and new nuclear professionals, embracing the new ways of learning that modern learners prefer,” said Ricky Swanepoel, Chief Technologist at Eskom Holdings. “In a recent skills audit, as many as 26% of staff in technical disciplines indicated their skills are not fully utilised. This presents a significant opportunity to improve business efficiency and productivity.”

Several representatives of nuclear power programmes also highlighted using digitally enabled workflows as a successful way to speed up clear and reliable communications between various stakeholders. Digitalisation, they said, significantly improves the speed of information sharing as well as the quality and amount of data collected. Enabling better data collection can support further innovation in the future by providing a clearer picture of the areas that are ripe for change and confidence that data-intensive solutions will have the access to the information needed for them to function effectively.

While at Hinkley Point participants also talked with and learnt from EDF staff how new approaches to building and project managing are influencing Hinkley-C’s construction. Hinkley-C is the first new nuclear power station to be built in the UK for more than 20 years and will provide low-carbon electricity to around 6 million homes.

“These events were an excellent opportunity to engage a diverse gathering of utility, regulatory and Technical Support Organization (TSO) expertise. Participants developed actionable recommendations aimed at accelerating the deployment of innovative solutions at operating plants,” said Ed Bradley, Team Leader for Nuclear Power Plant Operation and Engineering Support at the IAEA.

The Hinkley Point meeting followed the Global Forum’s main event held in London designed to accelerate innovation. Through a series of immersive workshops the forum sought to equip the nearly 200 participants with the kinds of skills needed to encourage confidence and innovation. The Forum ran between 17-19 July, it was hosted by EDF and organized by the UK National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) in cooperation with the United States-based Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the IAEA and the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

As a next step, the IAEA is planning a 2023 Technical Meeting to launch an International Network on Innovation to support operating nuclear power plants and to help develop further innovation specific events on artificial Intelligence, nuclear hydrogen production and nuclear-renewable hybrid energy systems.

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