Nuclear build projects have some key differences from traditional construction projects. You could try and perfect the design of a nuclear power plant before you start construction but given how long these construction projects take, some aspects of a design can change before you get to the stage where operations can begin. Construction of a new nuclear plant has to begin before every single detail of the design is finalised. A pump that was originally specified three years ago might no longer be in production or standards for welding protocols may change. Since a nuclear power station can be in operation for 60 years it doesn’t make sense to build it, file some paperwork and move on. Regular maintenance and replacement of parts requires some sort of system for digging out specifications for a component. The one thing you can be sure of in a nuclear project is that things will change.

Each new nuclear build is unique. Specifications are different depending on local geology, supply chains and site history. When you dig down into the details every pump, flange and bolt must meet some specifications and each component must work with the others in an intricate dance of heat, pressure and flow rates. Designing something this intricate requires input from many different specialisms and generates a vast amount of paperwork. Navigating of all of this information requires a significant amount of effort.  You could use Building Information Modelling during the construction phase to make this easier but perhaps something more is needed to keep track of changes during these complex projects with such a long timeframe that relies on multiple specialisms.

Changing the design leads to an update of the drawings but testing and operation is for someone outside of the design team to do. Those tests might reveal that changing one component has a knock on effect for operations elsewhere in the plant. For example, imagine that you realise you will need more flow; this means that you need a bigger pump. It also means that you need a bigger pipe. You might also discover once you’ve started testing that you need a bigger feed tank to draw from, or more head pressure, or more substantial flanges at critical connection points. As you start to figure out the knock-on effect of this change, you also discover that one part of the plant that you need to access might be behind a wall that has already been substantiated for seismic events. You’ll need to demolish the wall, make the change, and then test the wall again. Suddenly, a design change that was simple on paper becomes complex and the cost starts to spiral. And what if, once you’re rebuilt that wall, you realise there’s another change to be made to a different component? Work on the wall needs to be repeated yet again; the costs continue to spiral and the timeline starts to slip.

The sort of scenario detailed above happens with surprising frequency. A lot of experts are involved in the design and they each have their specialism to focus on. The mechanical engineers responsible for that pump may not know that it’s behind a wall and they’re unlikely to know about seismic testing. The project manager will certainly have an overview of all of these aspects but their specialism is in management, it’s not in mechanical, seismic testing or fluid dynamics. Imagine all of the strands of information connecting all of the different design aspect of each component to each other; that’s one hideously messy ball of string. Sometimes, getting these details right involves more than just passing the information along, it takes great insight and an almost supernatural level of foresight.

There is a better way.

It makes sense to think of a power plant as a product which requires certain management principles. A Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) system is a bit like an octopus with many tentacles, or fingers, in many pies. It can navigate those multiple, interconnected strands of information and tell you where to look for the knock-on effects of changing one aspect of the design. In nuclear, instead of using PLM to refine a final product prior to manufacture, those same management principles can be applied to change management across design, construction and commissioning.

Taking the above example, the first step for the shift team working on replacing that pump will be to dig out several documents including drawings for electrical circuits, pipework, specifications of the pump, manuals, and the necessary paperwork for a Safe System of Work. It’s not easy to find all of this information and make sense of it at 2 am. That shift team needs to figure out where to apply isolations, how to drain down that section of pipework and understand what the risks may be. On nightshift, it’s not uncommon to make the wrong decision when you don’t have all of the information to hand or to miss a safety critical detail during shift handover. The fitters, mechanics and other doers ask questions of the engineering department as they’re working on a new build or on a refit during routine maintenance. This leads to a hold-up as they wait for the engineers to respond. The accumulation of these hold-ups can easily lead to programme overruns and frustrations between departments, and don’t forget that we’re talking about just one step in a chain of events to replace a pump that should be behind a wall that should be substantiated for seismic events.

Instead of relying on paperwork, imagine using a system that can help to really understand the impact of one single change and allows departments to work together. The shift team can make better decisions and can clearly communicate to everyone affected by that change. You can set-up the PLM system to record the details of a job, and what was done at handover. Setting up this system may not be as easy as filing some paperwork but then finding that paperwork again and collating the right paperwork for a job is a huge challenge that takes time and effort to sort out where the interfaces between departments can slow things down. Each department might only need to spend a little bit extra to get a job done, but these small amounts quickly add up. Instead, a PLM system could harmonise these parts of the business and provide an integrated view of departmental budgets.

Digital solutions are powerful tools for decision making. They can provide information about what a component is connected to and the room it’s in. It can also link to tests and issues logs. And those components that your item of interest is connected to? It can tell you about them too. It can also tell you about stock levels in stores. If you have the right tool in your digital toolkit, you can even do what-if analysis to decide in advance what effect a change will have, and whether a change is really needed at all. Going back to our example of a pump behind a concrete wall, if that wall has to come down to provide access, it can also tell you what else should be done in that room while you’re there. Manging that change from the update to the design, the planning and building stages, testing and commissioning suddenly becomes a whole lot easier. The project manager can now focus on what to do rather than working out the impact of any change. A digital solution can show when the critical path will be affected allowing the project manager to use their expert judgement to decide what do. It also allows engineers to focus on their specialism rather than on passing information back and forth.

In an environment where the engineers have a key role in providing information to others, it makes sense to have a system in place that allows them to do so easily. At first glance, a PLM system appears to create more work for engineering but if the digital solution is tailored in the right way then it will reduce the burden on that department. Using the right digital solution, even with a seemingly high upfront cost, can help keep a project on budget and on time. When you only have one shot to get your product right, doesn’t it make sense to invest in a tool that will allow you to manage design changes effectively, make the right decisions, and save money in the process? And after decades of operations when all of the personal will have changed, wouldn’t you want a way of managing records and knowledge, and of retaining expertise that can stand the test of time better than some paper in a filing cabinet can?

Utilising PLM comes with many benefits and there are some hurdles to get over in order to realise them. Commissioning a complex build like a nuclear power plant while the design is being finalised is a challenge, as is navigating the regulatory environment, building the safety case, and applying operating experience from a construction project that doesn’t happen very often. It takes in-depth knowledge accumulated over decades to understand these challenges, and to apply processes and operating experience from both nuclear and other industries to truly realise the benefits of digital technology.

To find out more about working with Nuclear Consulting to deliver a digital transformation for a nuclear project please Contact Us.