Monday, March 8, 2021

Global Nuclear Industry Commits to Building a Culture of Innovation

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Delegates at the Global Forum on Innovation for the Future of Nuclear Power called for innovation and action plans in four priority technical areas

“The most terrifying thing I saw in orbit was the thin blue line that separates the earth from the dark, black void of space,” said Garrett Reisman, senior advisor at SpaceX and former NASA astronaut. “It’s our atmosphere, and that fragile line is all we have. It’s up to you to save the planet.” It was June 2019, and Reisman was speaking to more than 250 senior nuclear power industry leaders gathered from around the world in Gyeongju, South Korea, at the Global Forum on Innovation for the Future of Nuclear Power.

Reisman was issuing a challenge to the nuclear industry: Accelerate innovation addressing global climate change. The forum’s delegates took Reisman’s challenge to heart. After three rigorous days of brainstorms and discussion, they called for innovation and action plans in four priority technical areas.

First-of-a-Kind Forum

“This first-of-a-kind forum issued a call to action. It was not a once-and-done conference,” said EPRI Chief Nuclear Officer Neil Wilmshurst. “We designed a high-energy, participatory, collaborative conference focused on action. Our vision was to convene utilities, regulators, manufacturers, and researchers—stakeholders that don’t typically meet in one place—identify barriers to innovation, and commit to accelerating the most promising technologies. This was about launching a stronger culture of innovation in the nuclear industry.”

“For me, the forum was about driving change through innovation,” said Fiona Rayment, executive director of the Nuclear Innovation and Research Office at the United Kingdom’s National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL). “And change has to be about the economics of nuclear energy.”

Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power (KHNP) hosted the forum and co-organized the event with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), NNL, and EPRI. IAEA and NEA contributed international perspectives, and NNL and EPRI research perspectives.

Fostering a Culture of Innovation

A central theme of the forum was that the success of the nuclear industry requires a much stronger culture of innovation integrated into every aspect of business. Participants reached consensus that this requires executives to shape a clear vision and lead with actions that enable innovation. It also requires that professionals with diverse roles, experience, and backgrounds engage and share information and experience with stakeholders across the nuclear industry and in other industries.

“You can’t measure innovation with return on investment,” said Wilmshurst. “Innovation is key to extending nuclear power’s vitality and longevity so that this carbon-free energy source is available to meet the global climate challenge.”

Accounting for about one-fifth of participants, young professionals served important roles in the forum, including chairing sessions and discussions.

“Usually at industry conferences, the younger, less experienced professionals are expected to play a smaller participatory role,” said Rayment. “Not here.”

“The innovation we’re seeking is not for the older generation,” said Wilmshurst. “It’s to enable the older generation to hand off a healthy, vibrant industry to early career professionals. We gave them an opportunity to influence their future.”

Perspectives from Inside and Outside the Nuclear Industry

On the first day, representatives from industries such as aerospace (SpaceX), pharmaceuticals (RenaSci), and telecommunications (SK Telecom) shared experience and insights based on their changes that enabled innovation. One example cited: Global pharmaceutical companies set up small, nimble satellite companies that innovated and handed their innovations back to the parent company. SpaceX emerged after NASA shifted its emphasis from innovation to safety following the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster.

“SpaceX stepped in with a culture of trying new things,” said Wilmshurst. “They hired people who didn’t know what was impossible. The upshot was that SpaceX is now a leader in the satellite launch business.”

Invited stakeholders examined barriers and successful examples of innovation in nuclear power. A roundtable discussion for regulatory leaders explored improvements that can facilitate innovation.

“Regulators are key to our success,” said Rayment. “We must engage our regulators early in the innovation process or we end up with significant iterations on technology development—which eat up time and money.” Rayment suggested that regulators around the world could collaborate to examine best practices and harmonize regulations so that each country doesn’t need to start from scratch in the regulation of new technologies.

Forum delegates participated in group discussions to identify and prioritize four innovations and identify actions to address barriers to their deployment in the nuclear power sector:

  • Artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve plant performance and reduce operations and maintenance costs
  • Innovative frameworks for industrywide sharing of non-proprietary R&D and operations and maintenance data
  • Digital twin technologies that recreate nuclear components, systems, processes, and entire plants in computer models to reduce costs and improve performance and training
  • Advanced manufacturing technologies, such as powder metallurgy, electron beam welding, and 3-D printing of components
Actions to Accelerate Deployment of Innovations

Through a new “Global Forum Collaboration Network,” nuclear industry stakeholders can meet regularly and collaborate to accelerate deployment of innovation at nuclear plants, with focus on the four priorities.

Wilmshurst discussed key forum insights as part of a speaking engagement at the annual leadership meeting of the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO), which brings together nearly all the world’s nuclear power executives. He also spoke at the 2019 Innovation for Cool Earth Forum, a conference initiated by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Rayment chaired a panel on innovation at the American Nuclear Society’s 2019 Winter Meeting and Expo, and panelists highlighted the forum’s priorities.

Freedom to Fail

Among the forum’s key conclusions is the importance of accepting risk and failure. Historically, fear of failure has restricted innovation in nuclear power. Successful innovation requires taking risks, provided that the potential consequences are manageable. Delegates agreed that a “freedom to fail” mindset needs to be embedded in nuclear power companies.

“As an R&D organization, EPRI understands that some things require a leap of faith—and that sometimes you have to take a bit of risk,” said Rayment. “EPRI understands the utilities, the technology developers, the need for innovation, and the market for innovation. I expect EPRI to be front-and-center to help the industry do something fundamentally different.”

“Success is not final, and failure is not fatal,” said Wilmshurst. “It is the courage to continue that is vital.”

Artwork by James Provost


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