European operators look abroad to solve supply chain troubles

Aging European nuclear power plants need parts to run safely and efficiently but a disjointed supply chain and uncoordinated regulatory environment means even the simplest valve change can be expensive and mired in red tape, say operators and nuclear bodies.

Many nuclear power stations often rely on aging technology (Source: IAEA)

Related Articles

In June, the Brussels-based trade association for the nuclear industry FORATOM published a report which examined supply-chain failings and presented a list of recommendations aimed at stripping unnecessary bureaucracy from the process and bringing down costs.

“The aim is to not reinvent the wheel but to build upon the existing experience of countries who have been using high-quality grade items in certain safety-related applications for years, or those who are seeking to do so further, as well as to include the considerations from existing supply chain projects and the feedback they have been receiving,” says FORATOM Senior Technology Advisor Nathan Paterson.   

The problem is a simple one made more complicated by Europe’s patchwork regulatory environment. Large mechanical systems such as nuclear power plants need to replace parts in their day-to-day operations but many have seen old suppliers disappear and manufacturing lines for certain pieces discontinued. 

And the parts that need to be replaced must fit strict industry standards. 

“Our internal processes, as well as regulatory requirements, have in some cases hindered us from utilizing widely accepted and proven modern technology,” says Paterson who notes that he hopes the recommendations within the report are fully implemented by 2022. 

Obsolete Parts 

The report outlines precisely what the power plant operators need should do to demonstrate the suitability of high-quality industrial items for safety classified applications. 

“The problem is the reactors were designed a long time ago and the components in them might be in obsolescence, which means they may have been replaced by what the manufacturers would say was something better but not necessarily in line with the design in which the plant was licenced,” says Senior Project Manager at the World Nuclear Association Greg Kaser. 

In the United States the problem was recognized early, says Kaser. In the 1970s, U.S. utilities came up with the idea of using commercial grade items, banded together through the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and came up with a process for proving when a new component on the market was a like-for-like replacement for the old piece. 

“One of the things that needs to be accessed is the critical characteristics of the component with respect to safety in the nuclear reactor design. That has become standardised in the United States,” says Kaser. 

Paterson says the European model sort by FORATOM would not be a cut-and-paste of the U.S. model but would also take from other countries that have successfully navigated the problem such as Canada, South Korea, Slovenia, Spain, Romania and Finland. 

Levers, buttons and dials

The parts worst affected by the regulatory requirements have been mechanical components, electrics and electronics, all of which have been radically improved and built upon since many of the power stations were built.

Many power stations are still running with buttons, levers and dials in their control rooms but turning analogue to digital is easier said than done.

“One of the big issues on the electronic sides is counterfeit, fraudulent and suspect items because there’s an industry of recycled electronic items. So, how to get the best stuff is a critical issue,” says Kaser.

The regulators have said that they are willing to look at replacing analogue equipment with digital and the substitution of obsolete components was possible no a case-by-case basis, however the operators faced the hurdle of having to prove the same replacement option for similar reactor designs to each national regulator each time, notes Kaser.

The Finnish KELPO project is working on developing the licensing and qualification practices in Finland with full cooperation of the Finnish nuclear industry and with the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) participating as an observer.

(Source: KELPO project)

Previously, manufacturing was closely monitored and it interfered with supplier’s regular process, including holding points where the part is viewed mid-build, before it could be accepted, explains Chairman of the KELPO project steering group and Manager of Public Relations at Teollisuuden Voima Oy (TVO) Juha Poikola.

“We pilot the new method to exploit standard components and, if it works well, it would be a permanent practice after that. We’re producing this new data base so the technical information and the harmonised process is in one place and it’s partially open to suppliers too. From the sellers point of view, we’re close to a normal buyer,” he says.

Not all parts are included, with the focus on safety class 3 and some of safety class 2.

Slovenia Turnkey Project

In Slovenia, the Krško nuclear power plant (NEK) was a U.S. supplier turnkey project and the operator NEK complies with U.S. NRC regulation, later endorsed by the Slovenian regulation. 

Most of the safety-related Systems, Structures and Components (SSC) of the Krško plant were originally manufactured in the United States according to U.S. federal code 10CFR50 and U.S. codes and standards (ASME, IEEE, ANSI, ASTM,etc) . 

In the early nineties, Krško started to face the same problems as plants in the United States. With vendors leaving the nuclear arena it was necessary to procure items which were no longer current or were discontinued.

When spare parts are needed and the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) has lost or dropped the 10CFR50 App B QA program, NEK has developed a Commercial Grade Dedication (CGD) process that can be applied or NEK can go to companies which provide reverse-engineering services, Management Board Advisor at NPP Krško Zoran Heruc explains.

“We were like an island in Europe having this turnkey inherited regulation, codes and standards, but by being proactive we benefitted from joint efforts and developed practices and processes in the United States,” Heruc said. 

The power plant was proactive in restructuring the procurement process based upon EPRI guidelines and in participating in joint efforts with U.S. utilities by becoming a member of services supporting plant operations, such as RAPIDSMART, which aids the exchange of material between power plants and POMS, a proactive management of obsolescence. 

Since 1995, a CGD process was developed based upon the EPRI guidelines which, in a very controlled manner, enabled the procurement of high-quality commercial grade items for nuclear safety related applications at the plant. NEK started contracting third party qualifiers with 10CFR App B programs and approached companies which provide reverse-engineering services.

Each utility approaches the supplier in a different way and with a different list of requirements, and so for low levels of business many companies choose not to support the nuclear industry, he says.

"If we started to work together in accordance with the same requirements, with the same methodology and the vendor knows what to expect, then it might be easier to improve this cooperation between vendors and utilities and this could improve the supply chain,” says Heruc.   

By Paul Day