Thursday, June 3, 2021

What’s the Best Way to Modernize a Nuclear Plant? New EPRI Tools Can Help Answer That Question

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With increasing renewable energy deployment, low-cost natural gas, and low electric load growth, nuclear power plants across the world face significant pressure to reduce costs. Utilities and policy makers view modernizing plants with updated processes and digital technologies as a promising path to make nuclear energy more economically competitive with other generation technologies. If successful, modernization can enable nuclear plants to continue providing carbon-free energy and contribute to cost-effective, reliable decarbonization efforts around the world.

Now, plant operators need to figure out how to modernize each facility in a way that reflects its unique features and circumstances. Should a plant embark on a large-scale program with improvements throughout the site that fundamentally alter the facility’s operations and maintenance? Or should a plant pursue a more limited program with focused improvements that address the most significant inefficiencies and the systems in most urgent need of repair? Or focus on a minimal program that upgrades only components and systems at the end of their lifetimes?

EPRI’s Plant Modernization Toolbox helps plants answer these questions. The tools are comprehensive and can guide users through developing a modernization strategy, identifying a potential suite of improvements, conducting business case studies on proposed improvements, making decisions based on the business case results, deploying improvements, and tracking the benefits.

“Stakeholders across the nuclear industry agree that plants may not survive unless they modernize,” said EPRI Senior Program Manager Rob Austin. “These tools enable plants to develop the modernization strategy that is right for them—and that can make them competitive. Our analyses have demonstrated that a cost savings of 25% can justify significant investment for many sites.”

There are dozens of potential modernization improvements, such as digital controls, wireless connectivity, continuous equipment monitoring, and data analytics that provide actionable insights on operations and maintenance. These plant modifications can yield cost savings in numerous ways, including more efficient use of labor, fewer scheduled maintenance tasks, fewer unplanned outages, avoided component failures, and improved plant performance and personnel safety.

A good starting point for plant operators is EPRI’s guidance for developing a modernization strategy and establishing and executing a modernization program. It guides users through the entire modernization process—from drafting a charter to implementing improvements to tracking the benefits.

When plant operators are ready to consider improvements for their facilities, they can browse through EPRI’s series of Modernization Technology Assessments (MTAs). Each MTA is 3-4 pages long and provides a short description of a specific improvement, its potential investment costs, and the potential savings it may deliver over time. The costs and savings are ballpark figures; actual figures will vary based on each plant’s unique attributes and circumstances. For plant operators who want to learn more, MTAs include contact information for EPRI experts who can provide information about the relevant vendors and manufacturers as well as about the plants that have deployed the technology.

To date, EPRI has developed 42 MTAs. On the Plant Modernization Toolbox website, users can review the MTAs and other resources to facilitate decision making and execution of modernization initiatives.

“We want to develop an extensive library of Modernization Technology Assessments that plant staff can browse through as they consider how to develop their modernization programs,” said EPRI Principal Technical Leader Chris Kerr. “We encourage manufacturers, vendors, utilities, national laboratories, and other nuclear industry stakeholders to use our template to develop MTAs for their own modernization technologies and processes—and we will add those to our searchable library on our website. Our goal is to have more than 75 MTAs by the end of 2021.”

As a next step in developing a modernization initiative, plant operators can use EPRI’s business case analysis model (BCAM) to quantify the financial costs and benefits of improvements at a plant. Users input various data into the Excel-based tool, such as historical maintenance costs using existing technologies, data from manufacturers on installation and operational costs of new technologies, and data from other plants on savings from improved plant performance or reduced manual inspections. Based on the inputs, the tool provides financial metrics such as the net present value of the savings and the return on investment over the plant’s life. The results of business case analyses can help plant leadership make informed decisions on whether to proceed with improvements.

“Some modernization improvements do not offer direct savings but can help maximize savings from other improvements,” said Kerr. “The tool enables users to evaluate the total benefits achieved through such synergies. Users can experiment with evaluating different combinations of improvements to maximize benefits.”

Collaborating with nuclear utilities, EPRI has applied the model to a series of business case evaluations, publishing the results throughout 2020, with more to come in 2021. Each evaluation provides instructions on how other utilities can repeat the analysis for their sites.

Applications of EPRI’s business case analysis model span a range of modernization improvements and expected savings. A few examples:

  • Idaho National Laboratory found that a large-scale digital upgrade at a nuclear plant has a net present value of $50-70 million (INL/EXT-20-59371).
  • An EPRI analysis revealed substantial operations and maintenance savings from the use of electronic work packages.
  • EPRI found that the application of hydrophobic coatings to water pumps could yield a net present value of up to $1 million in maintenance-related cost savings (such as reduced cleaning of submerged equipment).

“Through the business case evaluations, we are learning about the attributes that modernization projects need to have for a strong business case,” said Austin. “One emerging insight is that while it’s important to be targeted and cautious, ‘going bigger’ with modernization is generally the best path to a solid return on investment.”

“The amount of collaboration on the Modernization Technology Assessments and business cases has been phenomenal,” said Kerr. “So far, 11 utilities have supported the development of MTAs, and 13 have supported business cases. Most plants face similar economic pressures to modernize and have recognized the importance of sharing their experiences, lessons, and cost and savings data associated with modernization improvements.”

In 2021, EPRI is piloting the modernization strategy development process with two utilities. The results will be ready by the end of 2021.

Key EPRI Technical Experts:

Rob Austin, Chris Kerr
For more information, contact

Artwork by David Foster Graphics