Advancing the nuclear promise

As the nuclear industry confronts serious financial challenges, a new benchmarking survey will assess nuclear plants’ progress in automation and help them take the next steps towards modernization and reducing costs.

Nuclear Cooling Towers

11 July 2016

Nuclear power has come a long way since the world's first commercial nuclear power station started up in 1960. Today, nuclear supplies more than 11% of the world's electricity, and in some regions this figure is even higher: in the United States, almost 100 nuclear reactors produce over 19% of total electrical output, while the European Union depends on nuclear power for more than a quarter of its electricity.

Since the 1970s, the nuclear industry has dramatically improved its safety and operational performance, and is now seen as a reliable, carbon-free source of energy. The industry also has a significant economic role. In the US alone, nuclear power contributes $60bn a year to the economy, and employs half a million workers.

The challenges facing the nuclear industry

In recent years, the nuclear power industry has been affected by issues that affected its ability to realise these benefits. In the US, low-cost natural gas - particularly from shale gas developments - and subsidies for other energy sources have enabled gas-fired plants to undercut nuclear power prices. At the same time, the nuclear sector has been experiencing higher costs, including significant increases in regulation of nuclear plants. In 2015, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), which represents the nuclear energy industry, reported that total electric generating costs at US nuclear plants had increased by 28% over the previous twelve years.

The effects are already being seen: since 2013, nuclear power plants in Vermont and Wisconsin have been retired prematurely due to financial losses, and two more in Massachusetts and New York are to be closed by 2019. In Europe, many of the nuclear reactors built in the 1970s are approaching the end of their lifespan. This presents a clear threat to energy security. Either extending their lives or building new plants will be costly, intensifying the need for efficiency strategies in the nuclear industry.

Responding to the challenges

Recognising that a 'business as usual' approach will not address these challenges, the NEI has launched a three-year initiative: Delivering the Nuclear Promise. The aim is to help the industry perform more efficiently, economically and safely by making the transition from current slow, paper-based processes to modernised, automated procedures.

Already, the NEI has identified initial potential savings in several areas, including improvements in corrective action programs, work management, engineering, security and regulatory efficiency. Further objectives include analysing technological and operational changes that could enhance safety and improve efficiency. Launching the plan, NEI Chief Operating Officer, Maria Korsnick highlighted its overall objectives:

"This is an initiative to reduce our operating costs, without question, but advancing safety and reliability are foundational aspects of this plan."

Assessing the nuclear industry

One of the essential elements supporting this process will be to understand where nuclear operators currently are in terms of paper-driven / electronic workflows. To help achieve this, Idox EIM (McLaren Software) has teamed up with the Nuclear Information and Records Management Association (NIRMA) to conduct a survey of the nuclear industry in the US and Europe. 

The survey responses will be used to gauge what progress has been made and identify what more needs to be done to achieve the aims of the NEI Promise. A new maturity model, will help nuclear operators understand where they are in the design stage process. As well as forming an industry benchmark, the results will also provide vital data to guide nuclear power operators towards their next stage of maturity.

The findings from the survey will be reported at NIRMA's annual conference, taking place in Nevada next month. Idox EIM will also be exhibiting at the conference, and delegates will be welcome to come along and find out practical ways to improve efficiencies and reach the next stage on the maturity model.

Sustaining the accomplishments of nuclear power

The continuing importance of nuclear energy was demonstrated when extreme cold weather in North America in 2014 triggered problems in bringing coal and gas capacity online. Only the very high level of nuclear availability prevented the breakdown of the North Atlantic electricity grid. By taking part in this benchmarking study and engaging with Idox EIM and NIRMA, nuclear operators will be advancing the reliability and safety of the sector, while ensuring that they are fully aware of the best practices and technology solutions to improve operations and reduce costs.

Idox EIM (McLaren Software) has over 20 years experience providing solutions to the nuclear industry. Our software address the unique challenges of the nuclear sector, including specialised document control expertise and industry knowledge.