Opinion

Big benefits for nuclear sector by going digital

Waldeck Consulting founder, Paul Waldeck.

Building Information Modelling (BIM) and Project Lifecycle Management are transforming the nuclear industry for lifecycle value and assurance. PAUL WALDECK explains how. 

The UK’s energy industry has reached a crucial turning point. By 2030, 60% of the UK’s existing power stations will have closed, with coal-powered facilities to be terminated even sooner within the next decade. 

All eyes are on nuclear to help bridge the looming energy gap, with the government outlining ambitious plans to make the UK a global leader in nuclear technologies. Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are set to feature heavily in the UK’s nuclear reserve, proving simpler to build and more efficient than larger power generation methods. 

What’s crucial, however, is not simply the type of facilities constructed, but how they are conceived, designed, constructed and commissioned. All of these factors are integral in facilitating safe, efficient and low cost operation, maintenance and ultimately, decommissioning. 

As the recent government mandate attests to, BIM is vital to any construction process. The reasons for this are multi-fold, with BIM combining graphical and non-graphical data on a common data environment – a secure virtual space where all project data is correlated and housed. The result is greater accuracy, collaborative working and, importantly, far less wasted expenditure at build stage. 

However, I would argue that BIM is just the start when constructing a nuclear new build. A nuclear facility is a long-term asset, and effective maintenance is paramount to ensure it remains safe, efficient and accessible throughout its lifecycle. 

When BIM is interfaced with product lifecycle management at the very start of a project, it provides a full digital solution that supports feasibility and planning, design and development, construction, operations, maintenance and decommissioning phases of an asset. At Waldeck, this combination is known as project lifecycle management (PLM). In practical terms, introducing PLM at the start of a project will add to savings already achieved by BIM, with some early adopters claiming capex savings of up to 20%.  

Put simply, PLM takes BIM from being something that is used only at construction phase to something that is used throughout the asset’s lifecycle. Detailed tagging of assets - which can include anything from the diameter of pipes to how frequently ventilation systems need servicing - is directly interfaced with a site’s facilities management programme. This allows for the optimisation of plant performance and maintenance, creating a ‘digital twin’ on which scenarios can be modelled and real-time analysis and insights can be made. 

The benefits for the operator are massive. The insights provided enable reasoned predictions that can prevent maintenance issues, equipment failures and costly declines in operational performance. All extremely important factors for a nuclear facility that contains high risk substances and needs to be maintained with upmost care. 

Decommissioning is another crucial element that can be revolutionised by PLM. The UK’s current, ageing facilities are subject to a major decommissioning programme, set to be completed in 2065. Imagine how much simpler and safer this process would be if we could access a complete digital twin of each facility. The opportunities for both cost savings and increased safety are huge. 

Evidence of the success of this method is already out there to see. GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy and Exelon Generation’s industrial internet platform project is using the latest analytics and sensor technology to optimise plant maintenance and increase asset life. This case study outlines benefits that include $230 million of savings for a new combined-cycle gas power plant, as well as up to $50 million of savings for an existing plant. Across the industry today, this would equate to around $75 billion in savings. 

The UK construction, nuclear and power industries have been guilty of being behind the curve in deploying evolving digital technologies. Now’s the time to recognise exactly what can be achieved by embracing them. 

Paul Waldeck is founder and director of specialist consultancy, Waldeck Consulting.