Web-enabling the nuclear plant

By Paul Johnson, Cap Gemini Ernst & Young

Web technology, with its ability to allow seamless transactions between dissimilar systems and apply technology like wireless communication, is making business processes far more flexible and efficient than ever before. One business that should naturally benefit from this new technology is the nuclear power industry.

Because of improved nuclear plant performance and a growing need for environmentally clean energy, several plants are renewing their licenses or expanding their capacity limits. In addition, new plant construction is being seriously considered again. To stay competitive in a deregulated electric industry, though, these plants will need new opportunities to improve efficiency and reduce cost. Have nuclear plants adopted Web technology to meet these new realities and needs?

To find out, Cap Gemini Ernst & Young surveyed senior IT managers at nuclear power plants across the U.S. Twenty-three plants responded, representing a third of U.S. operating nuclear plants, of varying age and design, from all four Nuclear Regulatory Commission regions.

The findings

The nuclear IT managers said that plant operations processes have been enabled far less often than the support processes. There are several likely explanations for this concentration. Support services often use applications that are common to several industries, therefore mature and inexpensive applications can be implemented “off the shelf.” Another explanation is that Web-enabling processes like human resources and finance are often part of a larger corporate-wide initiative, using corporate resources. Early implementation of these processes is not surprising. Finally, Web technology is best at enabling communication between different locations, such as corporate offices and regulatory agencies.

Counting the number of Web-enabled processes at each plant revealed two distinct groups. Plants with nine or more enabled processes are in the “more enabled” group. Plants with five or fewer enabled processes are “less enabled.”

The plants in these groups have common features. Companies that own and operate multiple nuclear plants comprise almost two-thirds of the more-enabled plants. Most are plants with newer, larger designs. Similarly, most of the less-enabled plants are their owner’s only nuclear plant, and three quarters of the less-enabled plants have older, smaller designs.

The infrastructure to support Web applications varies from plant to plant. Although virtually all the plants surveyed are using applications on their company’s intranet, only about half of the plants are using extranet-based applications and only half are using Internet applications. Most of the less-enabled plants are using only intranet applications. This precludes Web applications that interact outside the company for such applications as procuring spare parts from a vendor.

One aspect of Web technology that could help operations is its ability to use wireless applications in the plant itself. Only a couple of plants said they were using wireless applications and, notably, those were pilot projects. The IT managers said poor signal tower coverage and high signal attenuation within plant structures were a barrier to wireless apps. One company is considering installing repeaters inside their plants to enable wireless applications. This would open the door for such things as transfers of data in the field and communications across contamination boundaries.

The nuclear IT managers did provide several examples of innovative applications within leading plants, including:

“- Using PDAs to perform equipment surveillances;
“- Using wireless technology to manage equipment inventory during steam generator inspections;
“- Making schedules and library databases available in the field;
“- Videostreaming of remote annunciator panels to the control room.

Most of these examples were isolated applications, but they suggest what Web technology is capable of. Possible applications include providing interactive information sources in the field, connecting remote locations with real-time information, and simplifying processes involving a contamination boundary.

Johnson is a manager at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young. He has worked in and with the nuclear power industry for the past 25 years and has been involved with implementing enterprise resource planning software solutions for the past four years. He can be contacted at Paul.Andrew.Johnson@us.cgeyc.com

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