Nuclear power plants are some of the most complex facilities in the world, so it may be surprising to learn that many of them still utilize analog instrumentation and control (I&C) technology. There are several factors at play in the hesitation to upgrade to modern digital systems – heavy regulations, upfront costs and the solid performance of the original I&C equipment. But as more and more plants reach their 50-year milestones and begin to seek license renewals, maintenance and operating costs continue to rise and attracting new personnel with analog experience becomes more of a challenge.
For nuclear energy to remain a competitive source of electricity generation, we as an industry must remove the barriers to modernization. In 2018, the World Nuclear Exhibition reported that U.S. operators spent more than $7.5 billion a year on reactor maintenance and upgrades across the country’s 99 operating nuclear plants. The introduction of more sophisticated diagnostics and algorithms typically utilized in digital I&C systems can not only reduce these rapidly increasing maintenance costs, but can also help improve safety, reliability and efficiency. Digital non-safety system upgrades, such as turbine and feedwater control, performed at utilities across the globe have demonstrated their enhanced capabilities through a reduction in single-point vulnerability, systems diagnostics and continuous online testing to provide potential reductions in inadvertent reactor trips, thus improving both safety and availability.
Digitalization also helps to safely reduce costs associated with onsite personnel and required manpower. A commercial nuclear power plant currently employs anywhere between 400 to 700 workers, many of whom are dedicated to system calibration, surveillance and maintenance activities. Digitized systems can provide more than an 80 percent reduction in time allocated to these tasks. When a potential issue is discovered during these inspections, advanced system diagnostics have been shown to reduce the mean time to repair to less than 30 minutes, with parts on-hand. There is an argument to be made that no one is more familiar with the phrase “time is money” than nuclear power plant operators, and modernized systems benefit plant owners through increased plant availability and lower maintenance costs.
The nuclear energy industry is currently facing significant challenges in the power generation marketplace. These challenges present exciting opportunities; now more than ever we have the chance to embrace innovative, advanced technologies and modernize the next generation of safe, clean and reliable nuclear power.
Senior Vice President, Engineered Systems and Solutions
Westinghouse Electric Company