The digital instrumentation and control (I&C) era is undeniably upon us. For a decade, utilities have been transitioning safety- and non-safety-related I&C systems from analog to digital technologies. Now, as plant life extensions and subsequent license renewals progress, the need for safe and reliable automation is driving utilities to decide which modifications to their systems are necessary to support the continued reliable and safe operation of their nuclear power plants.

Considering digital I&C upgrades in the context of long-term planning

As utilities evaluate and plan long-term operation strategies for their nuclear power plants, engineers and managers are asking questions like “Should we upgrade now?” and “Is my team ready?” Answering these questions with any level of confidence requires a comprehensive look at current plant technologies in the context of where the plant is expected to be in 10 or even 20 years, also taking into consideration ongoing efforts to optimize resources and reduce costs. Importantly, as components from existing systems become obsolete, plant operators risk downtime if a part that needs to be replaced is not readily available. For nuclear power plants to be profitable, operations and maintenance costs must continue to decline, especially as renewables continue to grow and vie for market share.

"With advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning, exponential growth potential can be unleashed through modernization of plant I&C systems"

The I&C systems—the plant’s brains and nervous system—provide automation, monitoring and controls for safety- and non-safety-related operations and include several tools that can reduce the bottom line and help nuclear power plants better compete with other energy sources. Upgrading to a cutting-edge distributed control system (DCS) can offer a data-enabled, open-interfacing system architecture and platform. Its architecture should enable a scalable design and operation of connected systems with cybersecurity built in at every layer. With advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning, exponential growth potential can be unleashed through modernization of plant I&C systems.

New digital tools add value and generate cost savings but require an investment, including financial, schedule and outage resources for installation and training. Plant engineering teams must equip themselves with all of the tools, including expert partners, to ensure proper planning and an effective return on investment (ROI)justification that will earn buy-in from every stakeholder. It’s a necessary step toward project success and a critical component of a plant’s preparation and transition into the digital era.

Choosing the right system for the plant

A new controls platform should be an open, easily interfacing and future-proof process automation system that provides control over the plant’s profitability. It should be designed to measure operational profitability improvements and have a future-proof architecture with continuous hardware lifecycle assessments and process tuning capabilities.

The ideal DCS will easily interface with current legacy systems and have a rejuvenating effect on them, adding new capabilities and efficiencies as if those systems were also upgraded. With the installed systems’ newly expanded capabilities and enhanced human-machine interface, the updated software will simplify engineering and enrich the user experience, while providing new data that will safely drive measurable operational improvements.

Using virtualization to mitigate hardware and software compatibility challenges

When seeking to maximize the return on existing plant assets, server virtualization is worthy of consideration. In server virtualization, advanced software, replicates the operation of a physical CPU, hard drive, and network controller, creating a virtual machine/computer. Like its physical counterpart, each virtual machine runs its own operating system and applications. This helps to avoid challenges that may arise in the event new hardware is incompatible with a plant’s older software.

With this approach, multiple operating systems run simultaneously on a single physical device. Server virtualization also supports automatic replication with virtual machine backups created and synchronized to a backup host automatically. This means active virtual machines can be moved from one host to another without disruption. In addition, loads can be shifted dynamically—workloads, entire virtual machines, and virtualized storage resources can be automatically and instantly relocated to safe areas of the network if problems arise. Virtual systems can also be monitored and maintained from a single, secure location, anywhere in the plant.

Virtualization makes it easier to focus expert attention on emerging plant issues. They can be located and resolved more easily, using an offline shadow system that mirrors the live production system. And, in the project execution phases, engineers located anywhere in the world can collaborate on optimizing performance and maintenance of the systems. Workstation and server hardware can be replaced independently without affecting the software hosted by the virtual machine. From a cost and space savings perspective, the amount of servers and workstations can be drastically reduced by consolidating multiple applications into single virtual machines.

The ability to host multiple virtual machines on a single control processor can significantly reduce the risk associated with project delivery cycles. Virtualization decouples system hardware from system design, and from the geographic locations of engineering experts, making last-minute changes easier to implement. Virtualization technology also means software and operating systems need not be tied to specific hardware. As a result, the burden on the team declines as the system evolves. Maintenance and troubleshooting can also be more quickly addressed by system experts within the virtual environment.

Supporting workforce recruitment and alignment efforts

Recent graduates are entering the nuclear workforce in increasing numbers, armed with the theoretical and practical know-how to manage new technologies that harness the massive amounts of data digital I&C systems can provide. In fact, many new engineers and technicians expect to be working on the latest platforms they’ve been using at universities and technical schools. Many advanced reactors boast these modern systems and control rooms and, as a result, utilities planning to operate these technologies will likely be able to attract the best and brightest candidates.

Upgrading legacy I&C systems to an innovative DCS will not only enhance plant safety and operations, but it also allows operators to take full advantage of the sophisticated skills the next generation offers. These young professionals are also key to unlocking the not-yet-completely-realized benefits of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Upgrading in today’s competitive marketplace

With today’s increasing energy marketplace competitiveness, extracting additional value from existing control systems is crucial to helping plants do more than just keep up—it’s vital to remaining competitive.

Historically, the DCS has been limited to controlling the efficiency and safety of non-safety-related nuclear power plant control systems, such as feed water and balance of plant control, without being able to measure and control other critical operating variables in real time, especially profitability. Newer systems increase the value process controllers can generate, primarily by making the real-time profitability of the operation more visible. They allow the next-generation workforce to evaluate the real-time performance of plant operations directly at the equipment level and empower them to more easily identify the impact their actions and decisions have on the maintenance of the operations they control.

By providing far more visibility into the performance and health of every plant asset, the system allows the team to understand the impact their maintenance has on the long-term operations, and business leaders to understand the impact their decisions have on the future of the plant in real time.