US operators roll out electronic project apps to speed up maintenance

U.S. utilities can cut overheads for plant operations and maintenance (O&M) work package lifecycles by up to 75% by switching from paper to digital and mobile platforms, Jeff Colborn, Utilities Strategy Managing Director at Accenture, told Nuclear Energy Insider.

The digitization of nuclear work practices is pivotal to cutting industry-wide operating costs by 30% by January 2018, a target set by the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) in its Delivering the Nuclear Promise (DNP) initiative in 2015.

U.S. wholesale power prices have slumped on the back of low gas prices and rising renewable energy capacity and prompted the accelerated closure of several nuclear power plants. Digitization is seen as a key way for nuclear power plants to reduce O&M costs and remain competitive.

A recent survey by Nuclear Energy Insider showed 65% of nuclear plant operatives consider digitization as a large growth area for their company, while 19% said the electronic work package (e-WP) is the most important technology for boosting industry efficiency.

The use of e-WPs can cut overhead times by 2.5 hours, which results in significant annual savings for the thousands of packages executed annually at each plant, Colborn said in an interview.

In 2013, Accenture was asked by a large nuclear operator to study the performance and regulatory impact of using e-WPs using mobile tablets in the field.

Over the next two years, e-WPs were implemented across multiple nuclear facilities to manage and execute maintenance activities, transforming end-to-end performance and streamlining the flow of critical tasks. Efficiency gains included a 50-75% reduction in work package lifecycle overheads, which include materials and time spent managing and executing the maintenance work.

New investments

Falling software and hardware costs, along with economic pressure from wholesale markets, have accelerated the deployment of digital and mobile technology in the nuclear industry, Colborn said. Plant employees are also becoming more technology-proficient, he said.

An estimated 60-70% of U.S. nuclear plants will implement digitization projects in the next two or three years, Colborn said.

Investment in digital and mobile technology yields high returns for utilities, he said.

“Some nuclear operators insist that IT is different and that it’s sometimes hard to see the return. However, we are seeing that investment in IT if treated the same as, for example, the investment in upgrading a pump, the payback on IT is still higher. It’s a game changer.”

Financing digitization projects can be more challenging for smaller operators, but implementation by larger fleet operators will help to reduce first-of-a-kind project risks and drive down prices, Colborn said.

Large-scale digital systems have traditionally been delivered by established suppliers such as SAP, IBM and ABB, but rising industry demand has resulted in an increase of smaller software suppliers entering the market to augment the capabilities of existing enterprise systems, he noted.

Vendors lack in-depth knowledge of plant O&M execution and operators must clearly set out their digital strategy and requirements, he said.

Digital plants

Electronic work packages are just one of the many ways in which digital software is set to increase plant efficiency.

Last year GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) and Exelon Generation announced a new industrial internet project which uses the latest analytics and sensor technology to optimize plant maintenance and increase asset life.

Technology advancements have brought the power of Big Data and the Internet of Things (IoT) to nuclear plant operations. These technologies allow operators to perform predictive data analytics on component performance to drive maintenance strategies and reduce plant outages.

Nuclear utilities have warned that regulation must keep up with technological advances.

Operators have called for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to accelerate regulation changes and the NRC has responded by prioritising new modified regulation on Digital Instrumentation & Control (DI&C) and safety-related systems. Priority projects are schedules to be completed by 2017-2018.

The regulator also plans to streamline license review processes based on lessons learned from recent licensing experience and ongoing research, NRC sources told Nuclear Energy Insider last month.

The NRC will also use new analytical approaches to address the safety of evolving digital systems, the sources said.

By Karen Thomas