By opening the door to new technologies, the nuclear industry can tackle major challenges, including cost-cutting, tracing carbon emissions, and ensuring staff are equipped to carry out specialised work
A digital transformation is underway in the nuclear industry, but it is currently playing catch-up with industries that have already fully embraced new technologies. Rob Learney, head of technology – distributed systems, at Digital Catapult, takes a look at why the nuclear industry must come into the digital age.
The world’s population is skyrocketing. With global electricity consumption continuing to rise faster than the population, meeting consumer demand while honouring our all-important climate change ambitions remains a delicate balancing act.
Meanwhile, from using carbon capture technologies to offset emissions, to designing ultra-capacity batteries using quantum computing, we’re witnessing technology make waves as we build an energy industry fit for the next decade.
Arguably, future-proofing nuclear as part of a sustainable energy mix is an important piece of this puzzle. How can the sector reap the rewards of the digital age?
10,000 years of paperwork
By opening the door to new technologies, the nuclear industry can tackle major challenges, including cost-cutting, tracing carbon emissions, and ensuring staff are equipped to carry out specialised work.
And yet, the sector has always been rather slow to embrace digital transformation: an observation echoed recently by the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency. Why the reticence?
Even today, the nuclear industry is largely paper-based or poorly digitised. Given the long half-life of nuclear waste, planning is often done on a 10,000-year basis – with trusty pen and paper still used to track vital information in huge archives.
Technology is advancing at such a pace that many believe planning for thousands of years on software that might be considered archaic in the next five is simply a waste of time.
As we know, the nuclear industry is also a highly regulated place. From procurement to software development, processes are adopted on a “safety first” basis – and quite rightly. There are also security concerns about the management of sensitive data.
But that does not mean that innovation and safety are mutually exclusive: quite the opposite, in fact.
Sharing information meaningfully
Distributed systems technologies, like blockchain, can improve coordination between disparate stakeholders in the sector through a system of trust – making processes more aligned, efficient and secure.
The logging and sharing of information through blockchain works like an agreement between multiple parties: everyone must agree on what has happened, at what time, who was involved, etc.
You can imagine it a bit like a virtual notice board designed for multiple stakeholders, from mining sites to research labs. Here, they can share and quantify information for each other, by linking different assertions to create a unified statement of fact.
Let’s look at nuclear waste coordination as an example. At the moment, this remains bogged down in paper, with organisations communicating and storing critical information inefficiently.
By enabling partners to work together to track and monitor high-value assets using blockchain, we can map radiological exposure, the movement of waste, and ultimately, uphold stringent safety standards both on and off-site.
Turning words into action at Sellafield
Of course, distributed systems are highly complex, so undoubtedly a lack of understanding of how they work, or previous failed attempts to implement them meaningfully, also plays into lack of adoption. This means innovation often has to be sought outside of the industry.
At Digital Catapult, a recent project involves helping Sellafield Ltd with two different challenges: closely tracking waste and materials, and monitoring industry skills to empower sector workers to do their jobs efficiently and safely.
We brought Sellafield Ltd, their major stakeholders, and some top innovators in the blockchain space together. Work to understand their diverse challenges led to new partnerships with two cutting-edge start-ups working in the distributed systems space.
Condatis is now creating a “nuclear passport” using an open-source self-sovereign identity toolkit. This system will guarantee a highly mobile and highly skilled workforce, allowing qualified nuclear staff to move between locations while ensuring they have all the requisite training and experience.
Meanwhile, Jitsuin will track the lifecycle of hazardous waste, from generation through to disposal and ensure this crucial information can be accessed by all relevant parties in the value chain.
The race to transform
Whatever your organisation’s unique data challenges, bear in mind there are solutions out there to help both you and stakeholders tear down your barriers to success.
New technologies can be complex, but with the right advice and guidance, investment reaps reward.
What better way to welcome the digital age than starting with robust, trustworthy, and mutually beneficial infrastructure?
This article originally appeared in Nuclear Engineering International magazine