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The art of the achievable

Nuclear is part of the global energy mix, but there are challenges the industry has to face up to in the struggle between what is possible and what is achievable, says nuclear programmes director Paul Roberts.

The nuclear industry continues to evolve from its scientific roots to pursue more business and social-benefit driven endeavours: but it still attracts concern and controversy. The stark reality is that as soon as you start talking about nuclear you’re dealing with major strategic issues and significant sensitivities.

The nature of the industry divides opinion and involves a wide and complex range of stakeholders. The industry is based on complex bespoke technology and tough regulation that assure nuclear safety and underpinning requirements for the highest standards of security and quality. Confidence can only be won by maintaining standards of quality that are fit for purpose and commensurate with the potential consequence of defect or fault.

This means ensuring the absence of latent error in design and operation procedures. Ensuring that these nuclear safety cultural principles, alongside other key themes, are embedded within consultants, contractors and service suppliers to the nuclear sector is essential to alleviating the potential for a nuclear incident and the consequential impacts.

The presence of uncertainty At a very early stage in a project, stakeholders need clarity with respect to delivery time and cost. However, defining project outturns without quantifying probability can cultivate an unjustified level of confidence and promotes misunderstanding over proposed objective setting. In an environment of immature technology, forward project scope is often ill-defined – which creates unquantifiable risk.

I’ve adopted the term ‘uncertainty’ to reflect this. In many projects I’ve regularly observed evidence of major unquantified risks, and therefore uncertainty, at the stage of major investment decision. In most cases this is associated with lack of technology or engineering maturity, and can – in certain instances – lead to overconfidence in the perception of substantiated design safety when subject to regulatory scrutiny.

This drives aspirational scheduling and cost targets, which become engrained with stakeholders. Consequently, by the time a project reaches construction there are already significant delays and overspends.

A realistic view

In order to make a major investment decision, I was recently asked by a client to verify how long it would take to build a new nuclear reactor. Considerable efforts by groups of planners had already created an
extensive schedule. To answer the question, I collected data on every power reactorbuilt and organised the data to enable me – based on factors such as size, type, location and build sequence – to look at trends and establish a parametric way of estimating how long any reactor would take to build.

This allowed a probabilistic range of potential construction durations to be identified, and this predictive method – based on all the historical data and my own experience – showed there was less than a 10% probability of delivering the project in the set time scale. Together with average annual construction spends, macro outturn cost analysis could be performed accurately enough to reflect the level of uncertainty faced.

Going forwards

Holistic delivery is essential in order to fully meet the demands of the nuclear sector, and it must integrate assurance across many disciplines: programme and project management and controls, commercial services, technology selection and development, engineering design, stakeholder management and regulatory compliance. There are participants in today’s nuclear industry that do not yet have the knowledge and experience to provide this.

The long duration of nuclear projects – especially process plants and reactor builds – means that wholelife experience and knowledge is usually based on bespoke learning gained from just a few schemes. This makes corporate memory and knowledge retention critical. Sadly, few businesses have the pedigree, longevity or learning-retention processes to provide nuclear know-how based on historic experience.

As an organisation that has long worked in the nuclear industry, we can bring these benefits. And while the knowledge and experience will come to others with time, education and building the confidence to go into nuclear projects with eyes wide open – even in the face of uncertainty – are greatly needed.

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