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What's IT's role in nuclear power?

What's IT's role in nuclear power?

A nuclear power station requires sophisticated technology to operate and maintain. Kristian Steenstrup, vice president and Gartner fellow, discusses the important role that IT plays.

How important is IT to a nuclear power station? IT has become vital, though originally of course nuclear power designs pre-dated computing as we know it. In fact the nuclear and the IT industries have grown up as distant cousins in parallel. Both started as military initiatives in the mid-20th century. Both have evolved into significant industries with impact. In the last 10 years, they have been increasingly intertwined in their destiny. Computer technology generally is intrinsic to the development and operation of nuclear facilities.

It is in the area of operations that we see the most significant usage which includes administrative information processing in the traditional IT sense, but also real time control systems or operational technology (OT). OT systems include those that monitor systems performance and track temperatures as well as exposure levels.

How sophisticated has IT become today?

The use of technology has reached a new level of sophistication as the real time control systems utilised by engineers (the OT referred to above) are connected and networked into the IT systems. This provides a new difficulty in tracking the health of multiple components and analysing them in combination with other factors.

While this increases the complexity of a plant's technology systems, it vastly improves the measurement and corrective actions and is more capable of real-time interception. This is a far cry from the electro-mechanical systems of early generation plants which were more reliant on individual experience and expertise.

Can you give an example of how IT has simplified work processes in the power station?

The introduction of remote sensors is an immediate area of benefit. Now there can be direct, reliable monitoring of environmental conditions or the condition of key components (pipes, pumps, valves etc) that may be in inaccessible locations in the plant. Additionally, the use of mobile devices means that technicians have access to the whole wealth of historical and technical information as they do their inspection or repair rounds in the plants, without the interruption or delay necessitated by going back to the desk, or to a kiosk to inspect records or review instructions.

How can IT help reduce costs or enhance cost-effective measures for power stations that are expensive to maintain?

Maintenance is about striking a balance between effectiveness (how perfect the reliability is) and efficiency (how much time and money it costs to perform at that level). In the case of nuclear facilities, the trade-off is much more in favour of effectiveness. So with the focus on effectiveness, generally, the price of achieving high levels of reliability can be quite high. So IT systems, particularly enterprise asset management systems, are used to refine the processes such as planning work schedules of technicians.

We have seen efficiencies in linking materials management (inventory and procurement) to planned or expected jobs. This reduces the costly impact of starting and stopping jobs awaiting spares, but without over-stocking spare parts and driving up holding costs. IT is used to manage the critical outage periods for plants when they are taken offline for refuelling and concurrently a large amount of maintenance and inspection tasks are carried out. These periods require complex co-ordination of internal and external specialised staff and can have massive impact on the downtime if handled badly.

Since Asia has a number of earthquake- prone regions, how can IT help planners or management anticipate disasters or emergencies?

In all cases of abnormal behaviour in a plant, it is the IT systems that are critical. For example, in a controlled shutdown, the systems can isolate the problem areas, automatically switch off circuits or processes, advise the best course of collective action and provide a detailed auditable record of all the events leading up to a problem. They also enable remote access to systems installed by the manufacturers and designers of plants so that without any delay from physical travel and transport, many expert eyes can be looking at a problem and recommending courses of action based on pooled experience from across the world.

A key resource in Asia

With about 20 of the 75 reactors now being built in Asia, the region's countries are keen to explore nuclear power as a key energy resource.

The world's growing energy demand is the main reason for the interest, according to Holger Rogner of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). He is the section head, planning and economic studies section (PESS), department of nuclear energy.

"We have an imbalance between demand, which is exceeding supply, and that is primarily in India and China," says Rogner. Out of the 20 reactors, 12 are being built in these two countries.

'Chindia' 's nuclear presence

Currently, nuclear electricity is only a small percentage with two per cent in China and three per cent of electricity in India. But China plans a five-fold increase by 2020 and India plans an eight-fold increase by 2022, according to IAEA's 'Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power for the period up to 2030' report.

Energy supply security is another push factor for countries adopting nuclear power. "People do not want to be dependent on geo-politically sensitive areas like the Middle East," says Rogner.

According to the report, several other Asian countries either have plans to expand their nuclear power capacity, become nuclear debutants entering the nuclear arena for the first time, or have expressed the intention of doing so. Vietnam intends to begin construction of its first nuclear power plant in 2015. Indonesia plans to build two reactors and Malaysia has launched a comprehensive energy policy study, including consideration of nuclear power that will be completed by 2010

Meanwhile, many countries are undeterred by the fact that the region has a number of earthquake-prone areas, continuing their interest in nuclear power stations. Take the case of Japan. The highly earthquake-prone country has the highest number of nuclear power plants in Asia with 55. In fact, Japan's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, the largest in the world, came through unscathed in an earthquake last year.

Precautions against disaster can be adopted usually during the design and construction phase, explains Rogner. For example, the plants in Japan are built to withstand gravitational forces compared to those found in Europe, he says.

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