1 May 2005

A model for nuclear power

By Pete Karns
Pete Karns

Is the world ready for a nuclear energy renaissance? Several countries, such as Finland, Turkey, and China, have planned or are constructing new nuclear reactors today as part of a balanced approach to meet energy demand. Certainly, traditional fossil fuels will factor into the future generation portfolio. But many environmental, macro-economic, and political factors are forcing countries and the power generation industry to rethink what the balance of power should be. Nuclear energy seems destined to play a role.

To support the projected increase in base-load electricity demand, nuclear operating companies around the globe must maintain or improve upon current generation rates, all while their assets continue to age. Certainly new plants will go up; however the bulk of the world's nuclear generation comes from plants built in the 1970s and 1980s.

And not just the assets are aging. Increasingly, nuclear operators have to deal with a retiring workforce. That bit of news goes on top of a waning popularity of nuclear technology at the university level over the past two decades. Consequently, nuclear power operators are having a hard time finding and attracting workers. Nuclear power operators must therefore invest to ensure they retain worker knowledge for the next workforce generation.

Nuclear vision

Operational excellence drove the U.S. nuclear industry to develop and refine the standard nuclear performance model (SNPM). In essence, the SNPM is a model for the safe, reliable, and economically competitive nuclear power generation. The SNPM has been a joint effort of several industry bodies: Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), Electric Cost Utility Group, and Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO). This model aims to enable benchmarking and improve overall plant performance.

This SNPM presents an opportunity for nuclear power generators across the globe that want to improve current production rates. The nuclear energy industry in the U.S. increased its electricity production from 75.1% in 1994 to 91.9% by 2002. This increase also comes with lowered production costs, $2.43 in 1994 to $1.71 in 2002.

On average, global operators of nuclear power plants lag behind the U.S. average capacity factor. When one looks at the average capacity factors from 2001 to 2003, there is room for improvement within the majority of European and Asian countries. The capacity factor is the most common measure of plant performance, comparing actual generation to the maximum possible generation. The average capacity factor of all European nuclear units combined between 2001 and 2003 was 78.7%. For the U.S., this figure averaged 88.2%. France, United Kingdom, and Russia lag behind the European average with figures of 74.2%, 67.8%, and 68.2% respectively.

Reality check

To put this in perspective, 1MW on average powers 1,000 homes. If the average nuclear plant can generate 1,000 MW, the difference a few percentage points makes in net power output can be substantial. Operational performance also has an impact on cost and profitability. Every year a nuclear plant must shut down its reactors for a refueling maintenance program. A reactor may go down for as long as 45 days, at a cost of up to $1 million per day. It is simple math; if you shorten the refueling cycle, you increase revenue.

The standard nuclear performance model has eight primary processes, supported by 44 sub-processes and a number of company specific activities and tasks. The processes, originally envisioned by INPO in 1994, evolved into the SNPM launched in 1998. Since then, communities of practice (CoPs) have emerged to further improve the processes and their interoperability.

The goal of the SNPM is to give the people maintaining and operating nuclear power stations a common model on which to base their business processes and measure/benchmark themselves against others. For example, in the mid 1990s, it was quite difficult to compare work management statistics and programs between plants. The introduction of several INPO documents, which eventually became the SNPM work management process, enabled plants to benchmark and compare information on aspects of work management. Also, the standardization enabled the identification and benchmarking of innovations in plant processes and performance.

Behind the byline

Pete Karns is industry marketing manager for MRO Software. He has a B.S. in Engineering from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. Prior to joining MRO software, Karns consulted for GE Nuclear Energy. His e-mail is pete.karns@mro.com.