Why the nuclear industry must embrace digital technology

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The UK has some of strictest nuclear safety standards in the world. Operators must walk a perilous regulatory tightrope, ensuring their systems, hardware and firmware are all completely secure to ensure complete safety.

Many are wary, therefore, of the new IoT-connected solutions that are transforming the market, resulting in a sector that is severely behind the times and losing out on the latest innovations. However, this also makes the UK the ultimate proving ground for new technologies which can change the face of the nuclear industry in the long term. Why the nuclear energy industry must embrace digitalisation

Few manufacturers continue to support technologies that are, in many cases, between 50 and 60 years old. With the use of hardwired, legacy systems widespread amongst nuclear plant operators, the reluctance to upgrade is becoming a risk to operations and in turn to individuals. Whether they are ready or not, operators will have to turn to modern, connected solutions as soon as they can.

Yet this shouldn’t be an unhappy arrangement. IoT-connected devices, such as connected switchgear and facility controls, can give operators precious insight into system health and performance. This enables them to respond to issues faster, ensuring improved safety and compliance. At the same time, operators must seek connected solutions that are built to last, with promises they will be supported far into the future. It’s a win-win situation.

Serious business
While the Chernobyl disaster still casts a shadow over the world’s nuclear policy and public perceptions, the UK has a long nuclear tradition. The country opened the world’s first commercial nuclear power station in 1956. Today, the country depends on nuclear for much of its power.  According to the Nuclear Industry Association, the resource produces a fifth of all UK electricity and shows no sign of slowing down as there are already plans to increase this even further.

Yet safety, rightfully, remains crucial and always will. Unsupervised and unprotected, the immense radioactivity of nuclear materials can pose a grave risk to public health and safety. Accordingly, operators need to comply with numerous safety standards – the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974), the Energy Act (2013), and specifically the Nuclear Installations Act (1965) – to ensure they handle nuclear materials with care and protect workers and locals.

As nuclear plants digitise, cybersecurity is becoming an increasing concern for operators. The industry rarely talks about its breaches, but recent attacks like the ‘Nuclear 17’ intrusion events against plants in the US show operators must be on their guard.

However, while detailed nuclear safety requirements are necessary, they may be producing an unintended and unfortunate side effect. Operators are hyper-aware of the potential risks posed by cyber attackers, who make use of devices connected to the Internet of Things (IoT) to infiltrate and disrupt networks accordingly. From their perspective, any IoT-connected devices within the plant infrastructure could be vulnerable to attack.The nuclear industry must not fear technology developments like IoT

As a result, operators are holding back from much-needed innovation. Wired-in, inert devices are prevalent, the reasoning being if they can’t connect to outside networks then they are safe from digital intrusion. The rationale among operators seems to be ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’.

Yet this can’t continue for long. Much of the technology still being used in nuclear plants is decades old, and few manufactures continue to support it. As network components degrade, operators will be forced to adopt newer, more connected alternatives whether they like it or not.

Getting connected
Potential cyberthreats should not discourage the industry from digitising operations or adopting the latest connected technologies. With technologies that enable real-time network monitoring and anomaly-detection, cyberattacks can be detected and contained before they do any damage.

Indeed, far from being a weak point in the plant infrastructure, connected solutions are built to boost safety and regulatory compliance. Without the ability to monitor for and react to instances of overheating and equipment failure, it can be a herculean effort for operators to stay compliant and ensure safety. That’s why connected sensors embedded across each layer of plant operations – from electrical distribution to heating, ventilation and air conditioning – are needed to feed crucial insight to the plant control room. Issues can be identified in real-time and resolved before operations can be disrupted.

Connected solutions not only support improved safety, but reduced costs and greater efficiency. An enterprise Asset Performance Management solution enables operators to respond to challenges faster, and move from a reactive to a proactive maintenance strategy. Equipment longevity is extended and expesnive emergency repairs avoided. In turn, this also helps prevent unplanned downtime, saving the operator even more in the long term. For example, EDF Group installed a predictive analytics solution across its nuclear generation fleet. The company saw immediate ROI, with a single potential failure catch saving it more than €1m avoided business disruption.

Fundamentally, connected solutions take raw data which can then be transformed into insight. These insights can then empower employees with actionable information while simplifying operations for operators.

This allows for more efficient planning, as data can be shared with the full supply chain, and greater operational efficiency overall.  Engineers, for example, are able to spend less time digging through data and more time acting on it. This means operators can monitor conditions and conduct maintenance more efficiently and effectively.

Investing in the critical infrastructure of a nuclear plant is not a ten-year commitment, it is a 100-year one. The plant must remain safe, operational and protected from the next generation of attacks, whether physical or digital. Ultimately, this is impossible if you delay crucial technological upgrades, sacrificing safety for the illusion of greater security.

Digitisation should not be feared, but embraced; secure, connected devices will help operators maintain control over their complex infrastructures, to the benefit of the plant, the community and the entire energy grid.

David Hall (pictured) is Vice-President of Power Systems for the UK & Ireland at Schneider Electric
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Innovation in the nuclear sector will be a key focus of the Knowledge Hubs at POWERGEN Europe in Paris in November. Click here for details of the event.

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