One of the biggest problems facing leaders in the nuclear energy industry is the aging infrastructure in the United States and abroad.
The 2015 U.S. Department of Energy’s Quadrennial Technology Review noted that the United States is the world’s largest producer of nuclear power and that nuclear energy accounts for 19% of the electricity generated in the country. Yet, little effort had been made to modernize these aging facilities or to develop new software that increases efficiency.
In addition, most of the reactors located in the United States are over 40 years old. That’s because the country engaged in a frenzy of nuclear energy plant construction before new projects were largely halted after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.
Experts have noted that much of the technological infrastructure in America’s nuclear energy plants comes from the 1960s. This makes it difficult to find the right replacement components for aging systems. Nuclear power plants are also having difficulty finding qualified technicians to work on this outdated technology.
Both nuclear construction companies and power plant operators are collaborating with offshore development companies to create state-of-the-art software that can increase efficiency, reduce the likelihood of accidents, and help restore public confidence in nuclear energy.
Nuclear Modeling and Design Analysis
Proponents of nuclear technology have helped unleash a new golden age in nuclear energy construction. There are roughly 50 reactors under construction worldwide, with most new units located in Asia. In addition, plant upgrading is helping modernize existing reactors and increase their energy capacity.
However, nuclear energy construction today faces many challenges that the builders of the 1960s and 1970s were not concerned with. These include site characteristics like seismic activity, tectonic plate location, and proximity to the ocean and potential hurricanes.
Contemporary planners must account for stricter modern controls that ensure the plant is built to operate safely and efficiently. Finally, they are required to draft future decommissioning plans that work out how spent fuel will be disposed of and how to contain radioactive equipment.
Energy companies are collaborating with offshore software development firms to build custom software that increases safety and efficiency.
One of the leaders in nuclear modeling is Argonne National Laboratory. The organization is currently using its high-performance computers to develop algorithms that can accurately predict how different reactors will function. Argonne is also working on software that will help companies find the best location for their plants and plan for likely natural disasters.
Another important area of software development for the nuclear industry deals with emergency response. The well-known nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl created a public backlash against nuclear technology. This lead to a virtual moratorium on construction of new nuclear reactors in the Western Hemisphere.
Energy companies and nuclear reactor suppliers have responded to this crisis by investing billions into safety and emergency response software. In addition, the U.S. government created a series of regulations designed to improve safety at these plants.
Today, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires “reasonable assurance that adequate protective measures can and will be taken in the event of radiological emergency” before they permit a facility’s construction.
Companies like GSE Systems, based in Sweden, are building state-of-the-art emergency response modeling software to help operators prepare for the unexpected. The company’s DesignEP severe accident simulator platform helps energy companies evaluate their emergency response strategies and develop effective solutions that will work in the real world.
Data Analytics & Predictive Maintenance
The nuclear energy industry is far from the first to utilize advanced data analytics. However, the field is rapidly becoming one of the most innovative users of this new technology.
The community has embraced big data because it helps reduce the likelihood of an accident, increase efficiency and profits, and reduce the burden on staff — which is subject to human error.
Most nuclear power plants have a huge amount of data stored in their systems, such as nuclear generation statistics, energy capacity, and information on historical maintenance patterns. This information can be utilized by artificial intelligence and machine learning software to identify patterns in the data.
Companies are collaborating with offshore development teams to use big data to predict which systems and components are likely to fail. In addition, they’re using this data to implement predictive maintenance schedules that prevent crucial systems from failing.
General Electric is leading the predictive maintenance charge. The company’s machine learning software, Predix, uses millions of data points from past nuclear reactor operations to “help connect systems, devices, databases, external, and internal information to provide insight in a simplistic and insightful manner.”
Cybersecurity is a major cause for concern in every industry in the world. That’s because hackers attempt to break into a computer “every 39 seconds on average.”
This topic is even more important for the nuclear energy field, where a single breach can have fatal consequences. This is especially poignant since experts in the field have consistently stated that nuclear facilities in the United States are at risk of a terrorist attack.
The nonprofit organization the Nuclear Threat Initiative warns that “an attack that allows hackers to manipulate the systems that control a nuclear reactor…could have very serious consequences, including potentially nuclear reactor core damage and off-site release of radiation.”
Integrity Global Security is a great example of a company that is taking nuclear security seriously. The cybersecurity company received an EAL6+ High Robustness rating for its INTEGRITY software, the highest certification ever awarded to a nuclear security application. The firm uses an “air gap” between data and applications to prevent reactor accidents and to thwart cybersecurity threats.
Case Study: Rolls Royce
Rolls Royce’s nuclear division is a world-renowned research & development unit. It uses data analytics, state-of-the-art engineering, and machine learning to build some of the best nuclear energy components available.
The company released its nuclear plant monitoring software (SDS) at the 2016 Nuclear Information Technology Strategic Leadership (NITSL) conference. The SDS website was an immediate hit — but users soon began asking for a mobile version.
BairesDev’s autonomous delivery team helped Rolls Royce transform their prototype desktop responsive website into a fully-functional mobile app (mSDS). The team also added essential features like real-time access to system monitoring, the ability to select and group data points, and mobile alerts that tell managers when nominal values fall below pre-set ranges.
Rolls Royce and BairesDev announced plans to present the latest version of the mSDS at the 2019 NITSL. The companies will display new features and upgraded capabilities at the conference.
The global nuclear industry is currently undergoing amazing growth for two main reasons. One, recent developments in technology have enabled companies to build safer nuclear reactors that can avoid the tragic accidents of the past.
Secondly, most major nuclear accidents (outside the recent Fukushima disaster) occurred over 40 years ago and are no longer at the top of citizens’ minds. This means that the industry now has the potential to rapidly transform the narrative surrounding this technology and cultivate trust from the public.
Nuclear plant operators are collaborating with offshore development companies to develop up-to-date construction, operating, emergency response, and cybersecurity software that increases safety at these plants and helps avoid disasters. Expect to see more nuclear construction projects started as this technology continues to improve.