Virtual reality systems have made a tremendous achievement in enhancing the safety of nuclear sites, minimising time and costs, and improving operational reliability
The IAEA has hosted the International Safeguards Symposium which brought together more than 500 participants from more than 100 countries to discuss the latest advances in safeguards innovation and technologies. The symposium looked at four key issues; emerging safeguards challenges, technological advancements, safeguards for new facilities, processes and campaigns and the future of safeguards implementation. The aim was to improve the international implementation of safeguards by engaging the international community, building capacities, and finding new innovative ways to enhance the implementation of international safeguards in nuclear plants. Safeguards are a set of processes for collecting data and samples from nuclear sites to ensure that nuclear installations are exclusively used for civil applications and not for military purposes. This process is an essential necessity throughout the different stages of nuclear fuel cycle: Mining, Conversion, Enrichments, Fission, and Reprocessing.
A plenary speech was given by the IAEA Deputy Director General for Safeguards, Mr. Massimo Aparo, who outlined the IAEA activities in maintaining effective and sustainable safeguards systems. Mr. Stephan Lechner, from the European Commission, also highlighted the elements of safeguards systems including On-site Measurement, Sampling, Lab Analysis, and Surveillance. The current limitations of safeguards include Material Coverage, Effectiveness, Efficiency, and Transparency while developing the current model of safeguards which is based on Measurement and Analysis. It was also emphasised that sharing and exchange of information has been a major element in enhancing safeguards implementation in challenging sites such as the Fukushima Daiitchi Site. “At the current stage, all fuels except for the fuels in Units 1-3 have been successfully re-verified“, said Mr. Asamu Aruga, Director of Safeguards Office (Japan).
The symposium also aimed at enhancing Safeguards and non-proliferation measures in Nuclear Facilities. Ms. Ashley Finan, from the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, called for the need to consider non-proliferation early in the design of advanced reactors while providing actionable information to improve non-proliferation attributes.
“Safeguards are a set of processes for collecting data and samples from nuclear sites to ensure that nuclear installations are exclusively used for civil applications”
Dr. Yousef Alshammari
In particular, non-proliferation attributes were mentioned to receive less consideration compared with safety and costs and there is a need to influence developers to incorporate safeguards measures in the design of nuclear reactors. New proliferation indicators are being developed including indicators via state’s trade data in non-controlled goods.
Technology Intelligence in Nuclear Safeguards:
The implementation of safeguards may be enhanced via a range of technical strategies including advanced modelling and simulation, application of small and medium-size reactor (SMRs) with intrinsic non-proliferation resistance, and enhanced information sharing and exchanging. The main drawbacks of today’s nuclear energy are the low effectiveness of natural uranium usage, and the growth of large quantities of spent nuclear fuel. Generation IV reactor technologies of fast reactors and closed nuclear fuel cycles can address these drawbacks. Fast reactors may run for 30-60 years without fuel reprocessing and replacements which makes their application attractive from a non-proliferation perspective. These reactors, currently used only in Russia, are being prepared for commercial incorporation.
Digitalisation is set to be a game changer in the future of safeguard systems. Illustrations of technological innovation in the implementation of digitalisation in safeguard systems include the use of virtual reality systems to inspect nuclear sites, the use of laser technology, use of robotics, and 3D printing. Many nuclear national laboratories in France, Korea, Japan, and the United States, are developing virtual reality systems to enable inspection of nuclear sites in a 3D visual environment while training staff. The iDROP software is one such system which is developed by the CEA in France. Virtual reality systems also include robotics that enables automated actions of inspection tasks including weighing fuel cylinders and measurements of radiation. These virtual reality systems have made a tremendous achievement in enhancing the safety of nuclear site workers, minimising time and costs, and improving design to ensure operational reliability. They also led to enhancing decision-making and improving safeguards while experiencing the project before its construction. Laser-based measurements tools for future enrichments plants safeguards were also demonstrated. For on-site UF6 destructive assay is needed to address difficulties in shipping hazardous samples collected from inspected nuclear sites. Emerging laser technologies and measurements methods could help in addressing gaps in enrichments plant destructive safeguards.
Future Challenges and Opportunities:
Many challenges remain in the future of safeguards implementation especially with the emergence different types of reactors technologies including fast reactors, SMRs, and Molted Salt Reactors (MSRs). These reactors involve new design features and technologies with no existing prior knowledge. New safeguard approaches are still needed for fast reactors and closed nuclear fuel cycles especially in the radiochemical plant. Thorium reactors, despite their enhanced proliferation resistance, they will also present unique safeguards challenges due to the fact that they generate 233U, an attractive isotope for proliferation. The separation of Protactinium to control the production of this isotope continues to be a challenge for designing effective safeguards measures for thorium reactors.
Other regulatory, political and economic factors will also form major challenges for international implementation of safeguards. This includes the increasing growth in global trade and geopolitical uncertainty. For instance, future deterioration of trade relations between the US and China and Russia will harden monitoring the trade flow, and consequently, non-proliferation safeguards. This includes the impact of e-commerce in global trade and the implementation of safeguards measures in a global e-trade system. While technologies may present solutions, they cannot act on their own which raises the need for human capital training to take effective and necessary decisions that cannot be automated. Faster ways of payments including online payments and bitcoins, lead to increasingly fewer checks. This leads us to another challenge which is the evolution of so-called blockchain systems which requires a new set of regulations to ensure safe and effective nuclear systems.
These challenges may, on the other hand, be turned into future opportunities for technological innovation to enhance the sustainability of the international nuclear industry. For instance, relatively immature designs for Molten Salt Reactors may present opportunities to establish safeguards-by-design leading to newly developed approaches for safeguards implementations. The future vision of safeguards should include new engine tools, automated data feed, intelligent business analytics, structured integration of data and results. Finally, current engineering of safeguards should focus on embracing digitisation while pushing technical integration to enhance data sharing.
- Dr. Yousef Alshammari is a research scientist in Energy Economics at the University of Vienna, and the Editor-in-Chief of UCERGY Insight. Twitter: @YAlshammari
Disclaimer: Views expressed by the writer in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of UCERGY Analysts LTD.