Maintaining safety standards in nuclear manufacturing

Maintaining safety standards in nuclear manufacturing

9th September 2020

In recent years, the nuclear industry has demonstrated that it is one of the safest means of power generation we have. Questions about stability and cost have been answered and addressed, backed up with scientific evidence, bringing nuclear right into the discussions on clean, sustainable energy and reducing environmental damage.

There’s no doubt that nuclear has come a long way; now, as LTi Metaltech managing director, Edgar Rayner explains, it is more important than ever that the culture of safety within the sector remains part of its DNA.

Nuclear is currently going through a revolutionary phase. Rather than delivering power from vast reactor sites, small modular reactors (SMRs) capable of producing 300MW of energy while being able to be transported by lorry, are finding their way into the market.

And not a moment too soon – while it relies on nuclear for 18% of its power, the UK has not completed a new reactor site since 1995 and our existing network of reactors is ageing, with the new Hinckley Point C development currently underway in Somerset still some three years away from being completed.

Issues around safety along the nuclear supply chain can be addressed through considering these SMRs. This is thanks in no small part to the processes involved in their manufacture, which are not entirely dissimilar to industries such as aviation, where precision and accuracy are essential – and which we as a country have proven to be experts in time and again.

Nuclear has also learnt from the past. Fabrication businesses involved in the manufacturing of key components have to demonstrate they comply with the most stringent of quality procedures and accreditations. A number of these marks are only awarded after a factory has had a verification visit to assess quality at all levels, not just on the shop floor. From auditing to showing they have the right machinery for precision manufacturing, factories are constantly in the spotlight.

Technology has played a fundamental role in allowing fabrication businesses and manufacturers to take a lead in demonstrating safe procedures. Advancements in computer simulations, metallurgical testing and precision machinery are all factors contributing to nuclear safety and need to continue being so in order for the latest generation of reactors to be the safest in history.

However, there is another role that manufacturers have in ensuring a safe future for nuclear – maintenance. Reactors work under the most intense conditions and are subject to extreme pressures. Therefore it is critical that they are built to withstand these pressures continuously, not just when they are installed for the first time.

This is another area where manufactures take the lead. The expertise afforded by specialist precision fabricators, along with the rigorous quality assurance guidelines they adhere to at ach stage of a reactor’s production, allows them and developers to identify where components will need to be replaced and when, enabling greater transparency for developers and aiding the planning stage.

In addition, the technology at manufacturers’ fingertips, such as computer modelling, simulation, and machinery, allows for potential weak spots within a reactor to be strengthened before they are implemented. Known as Design for Manufacture (DfM), the process provides an early opportunity to modify designs in order to enhance safety before any physical machining takes place. Identifying potential areas for improvement during the designing and planning stages prevents costly accidents further down the line.

And the expert eyes that precision fabrication affords opens the door to wider collaboration in which nuclear professionals can work with manufacturers to optimise safety. Key decisions such as the material used within a reactor or ways in which incidents can be avoided can be made efficiently, with little delay, with the right outcome quickly achieved.

Manufacturers are part of a wider culture of safety prevalent across the nuclear industry. This has largely been as a result of the incidents mentioned through this article, and it is encouraging that lessons have been learnt from these. But this culture and mindset has to result in tangible success and actions at all stages of a nuclear development, and not just be a tickbox activity.

A manufacturer’s role in nuclear shouldn’t come to end once all the components are constructed. In fact, this is just the first role they have – next in line is the counsel and ongoing maintenance. A commitment to regular inspections conducted by specialist fabricators, as is the case within the aviation and healthcare sectors, is essential for maintaining this culture.

With nuclear poised to be a major player in the UK’s ambitions to reduce its reliance on high-polluting sources of power, we as an industry need to continue collaborating to educate policymakers on the potential at our fingertips and that nuclear can be a solution to the clean energy conundrum.

Clear, transparent processes outlined in accreditations such as the ISO and EN regulations manufacturers have to follow to the letter, and adapting them to each stage of the nuclear development, is a start. However, if we are to truly make nuclear 100% safe and secure for everyone, we need to continue looking at the risks involved, before they present themselves.