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Lessons from supporting a growing nuclear sector help to streamline manufacturing processes in a safe way
The UK Government plans to build up to eight new nuclear reactors to improve the country’s energy independence and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, as well as create thousands of new jobs.
At present, the only stations planned or under construction in the UK are EDF’s European Pressurised Water Reactors (EPR) at Hinkley and potentially Sizewell, with two reactors at each site.
If realised, the nuclear buildout programme will not only deliver the generating capacity required (if all the goals in the government’s strategy are met, nuclear could provide 20-25% of electricity needs by 2050) but bring significant economic benefits to the UK, including to the nuclear supply chain.
Successful delivery will strengthen the global perception of the UK’s nuclear sector, which will be important given that foreign competition is already strong and British firms will face a significant challenge from overseas companies vying for the same work.
An expanded and more capable supply chain should be well-positioned to access new domestic and export markets. Implicit in this is a focus on enhanced quality.
But the benefits of this buildout will be felt much more widely than just the nuclear sector. The transfer of knowledge and enhanced processes the supply chain will gain directly from the experience of working in this ultra-safety-regulated and highly rigorous sector will undoubtedly impact the quality of delivery in other market sector applications, particularly across the nuclear sector’s Tier 2 and Tier 3 supply chain.
For obvious reasons, material sourcing and provenance are vital in the manufacture of all systems, but for the nuclear industry especially, its importance in the manufacture of components is on a completely different scale. Materials cleanliness and, for instance, welding perfection, are prerequisites, but by far the most important factor demanded by principals and Tier 1 contractors in nuclear is safety—for workers and of course end-users.
A culture of absolute perfection pervades the entire manufacturing process because, bluntly, the scale of potential harm due to error is incalculable. Everything, therefore, aligns with the regulatory expectations placed on the UK Nuclear Licensees and is shared throughout the nuclear supply chain to support quality improvements.
At a practical level, it means the intensity and precision of the documentation are much greater than in other sectors; but this in no way underestimates the quality systems in, say, the oil and gas sector which has its own inherent risks to manage. Nonetheless, the level of scrutiny is also a lot higher for those working in the nuclear sector. All of this, of course, impacts time and cost. But it also means work undertaken in other sectors is greatly improved.
Taking experience from working on nuclear sites to future projects, nuclear or otherwise, means the time taken for the initial designs, development and procedural documentation can safely be cut back dramatically. In fact, the whole production cycle should be reduced by up to two-thirds of the original cycle, allowing the procedures to be performed in a more time-efficient manner—saving money at the same time.
All these are learnings which can feed back into the nuclear sector for other manufacturers facing similar challenges. Importantly, however, this experience can also add value to other market applications.
Interestingly, one of the downsides of the nuclear sector’s rigour is the pace and resistance to incorporate potential learnings from other industries. For example, certain welding techniques suited for delivering neat fabrication quickly are not yet approved for use in civil nuclear. In due course, the right applications may come but in the meantime, there is good reason why most of the traffic of learning is one-way.
Understanding how to prepare for inspection and test plans and incorporating these well in advance in the organisation of workflow, provisioning for the right procedures for each application and building up a library of procedures and techniques for future use, all feed into best practices aimed at reducing time and improving quality.
Documented learning in this way eventually reduces the process from 40 days down to 15 whilst improving the quality, and above all the safety, of the end product. •
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