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Addressing Safety of Smart Devices for Use in Nuclear Power Plants

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Emerging technologies are becoming available to nuclear industry to enhance safety and improve efficiencies at nuclear installations. Specifically, with rapid advances in digital technologies, smart digital devices such as smart sensor transmitters, electrical protective devices and variable speed drives, are increasingly used at many nuclear power plants. The safety aspects of the use of such devices were discussed at a meeting at the IAEA at the end of February.

The objective of the meeting was to establish guidelines on the selection and evaluation of smart devices to be used in systems deemed important for the safety of power plants. This will be the first ever IAEA safety report on the subject, to be published later this year.

Smart devices, which are electronic devices generally connected to other devices or networks via different communication protocols and can operate to some extent interactively and autonomously, are possible areas of technology and equipment upgrade. As part of a solution, devices incorporating artificial intelligence can also be considered for deployment. At the same time, the nuclear market is too small on its own for the development of customized smart devices specifically for power plants and therefore, their introduction may require careful considerations to assure safe deployment at nuclear power plants.

“Smart devices can be used in equipment or systems to increase nuclear power plant safety and reliability, enhance safe operation or improve various functions. However, if not properly selected and qualified, they may potentially introduce new hazards, vulnerabilities, and failure modes,” said Alexander Duchac, Nuclear Safety Officer at the IAEA, in charge of the report. “It’s a potential issue for both operating and new nuclear power reactors.”

In the preparation of the report, the experts are considering best practices from around the world on demonstrating that a proposed device is suitable for use in nuclear power plants. Regulators and operators are prepared to innovate and move beyond approaches that had been used in the past, participants have said.

“We have to find the balance between the technical feasibility and costs of implementing qualification requirements, and the added safety and performance benefit that they bring,” said Alexander Wigg, instrumentation and control engineer at EDF in France, who was a participant at the meeting. “There is a direct link between the technical and safety objectives as set by regulators, and the operational costs of qualifying and using smart devices.”

Furthermore, the practice to assess the safety of these devices for use in the nuclear industry differs among countries, and there is a need to build consensus on what constitutes high level of safety. “For us, IAEA guidelines in this matter are important, as we are developing our regulatory framework,” said Ionita Madalina, Nuclear Safety Adviser at the National Commission for Nuclear Activities Control (CNCAN) in Romania.

“New technologies can also bring new challenges,” said Greg Rzentkowski, Director of Nuclear Installation Safety at the IAEA. “Improvements in safety rely on a well-balanced combination of innovative and proven technologies – it is our task to provide assistance.”

The IAEA report intends to provide a common technical basis for all countries. The upcoming safety report was prepared with the contribution of 43 regulators, operators, designers of smart devices and developers of other internationally recognized safety standards from 20 countries. It will contain a model of how to design, select and evaluate candidate smart devices for their safe use in nuclear safety systems, including instrumentation and control, electrical, mechanical and other areas.

 

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