Digital transformation: Opportunities and challenges for the nuclear sector

Digital transformation workshop, 27-28 May 2021

By drawing on the lessons learnt from first-of-a-kind Generation III projects, the recent NEA study Unlocking Reductions in the Construction Costs of Nuclear: A Practical Guide for Stakeholders identifies technological, organisational, regulatory and policy drivers to reduce nuclear construction costs, foster positive learning and continually improve large Gen-III reactor projects. The study highlights three technology approaches in particular that could be implemented to deliver rapid cost reductions in the short-term:

  • Digital transformation;
  • Advanced construction methods;
  • Seismic analysis.

Unlocking Reductions in the Construction Costs of Nuclear: A Practical Guide for Stakeholders

In this context, the NEA is launching a new advanced technology and nuclear cost initiative with the objective to provide decision makers with a clear understanding of the current status of development of these technology approaches, their cost reduction potentials and the challenges that may preclude their large-scale deployment. The initiative kicked off with a workshop on 27-28 May 2021, which brought together experts from the public, private and academic sectors to discuss a number of fundamental issues pertaining to digital transformation in the nuclear sector.

The benefits of digital transformation are not limited to the construction phase. “These technologies bring the potential build and operate nuclear power plants at much lower costs with higher efficiency. Not just in the plants themselves, but along the entire supply chain,” NEA Director-General William D. Magwood, IV noted during his opening remarks. “They bring the ability to deal with the back-end of the fuel cycle, to drive innovation and to attract young people who are used to advanced technologies to the nuclear field.”

In view of this, the workshop explored the opportunities and challenges associated with digital transformation throughout the whole life cycle of a nuclear power plant: design, construction, operation and dismantling. It focused on mature solutions and incremental innovations which are consistent with the near-term learning pace of nuclear power, while providing some indications on future developments in digitalised nuclear systems.

“It’s time for the nuclear industry to come into the 21st century, to bring digital technologies along, but we also recognise that there are many challenges ahead,” said NEA Director-General Magwood. These challenges include cybersecurity, human and organisational factors and adapting these technologies into nuclear regulatory frameworks. In this context, the workshop addressed the organisational and regulatory viewpoints in order to identify best practices and potential challenges specific to the nuclear sector. It was suggested that exchanges with the aviation sector, another highly regulated sector, could be beneficial in developing solutions and regulatory standards for digital innovations in the nuclear sector.

Stakeholder involvement was identified as a pillar for successful digital transformation in the nuclear sector. “The timely involvement of all key stakeholders in any sort of innovation is absolutely key,” said Fiona Rayment, Chief Science and Technology Officer at the United Kingdom National Nuclear Laboratory  and Chair of the NEA Nuclear Innovation 2050 (NI2050) initiative. “Bringing together technology organisations, safety organisations, industry, the regulator and the government together early on in the process is a key way of enabling innovation to be successful.”

Earlier this year the NEA also organised a series of webinars with the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) and the Korean Nuclear Society (KNS) to explore the use of disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence and advanced manufacturing in nuclear applications and discuss the prospects for improvements in nuclear safety. 

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