Raising standards across the nuclear supply chain and achieving UK energy independence

In 2022, the UK government announced plans to build up to eight new nuclear reactors in the UK. The move is intended to increase the country’s energy independence and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as create thousands of new jobs. Currently, the only power stations planned or under construction in the U.K. are EDF’s European Pressurized Water Reactors at Hinckley and Sethwell, with two reactors at each site.

It is hoped that the commitment to the nuclear build programme will provide the required generating capacity. If all the targets in the government’s development strategy are met, nuclear power could provide 20-25% of the UK’s electricity needs by 2050. Nuclear power development on this scale would also bring significant economic benefits to the UK, including the supply chain required to build these plants. Successful delivery will also strengthen perceptions of the UK supply chain, which will be important given the intense foreign competition. Indeed, British companies will face significant challenges from overseas companies competing for the same jobs. An expanded and more capable supply chain should be well positioned to access new domestic and export markets, with an implicit focus on improving quality.

One could reasonably ask what all this has to do with medium-sized manufacturing companies in South Wales. Indeed, it is in large part because the knowledge transfer and enhanced processes gained directly from experience of working in this ultra-securely regulated and highly rigorous sector have undoubtedly influenced the quality of delivery applied in other market sectors.

The key to knowledge transfer

For obvious reasons, material procurement and sourcing are critical in the manufacture of all pressure systems, but the importance for the nuclear industry, especially in the manufacture of components, is quite different. Material cleanliness and weld perfection are prerequisites, but by far the most important factor required by nuclear power directors and Tier 1 contractors is safety.

The Hinkley Point C project, which began in 2018, involves the manufacture of a series of huge deaerators and feedwater tanks, each weighing 330 tons. So large, in fact, that they needed to be transported in sections and completed on site. The vessels alone have taken three years of work, and the tonnage and size of each is so large that it can only be exceeded by the size of the main reactor vessel itself. Each, once assembled and in place, must be able to withstand 20 bar of pressure and a temperature range from ambient to 200 degrees. The first of two fully assembled 55-meter long cylindrical pressure vessels will be completed in the first quarter of 2023, with four ferritic stainless steel deaerator units fitted internally and capped with crown and petal ends.Vessco Engineering, certified to nuclear standards in 2018, is a member of the Welsh Nuclear Forum, specializing in pressure vessels, heat exchangers, columns and other similar fabrication of mechanical structures. Recent commissions have ranged from nuclear processing sites such as Sellafield and power stations such as Hinkley Point C, to experimental fusion facilities such as STEP,.

So what is it about the nuclear engineering field that enhances our work in other areas? Again, it starts and ends with safety. A culture of absolute perfection permeates virtually the entire manufacturing process because, frankly, the potential hazards resulting from mistakes are incalculable. As a result, everything meets the regulatory expectations for UK nuclear licensees and is shared throughout the nuclear supply chain to support quality improvement. These range from BS EN ISO 9001 and existing codes and standards in the nuclear industry; the Office of Nuclear Regulation’s Technical Assessment Guidelines, the IAEA’s General Safety Guidelines and many other guidelines.

On a practical level, this means that the documentation is much stronger and more accurate than expected, and in no way underestimates the quality systems we are already familiar with from working in the oil and gas industry, which has its own inherent risks to manage. That said, the level of scrutiny is also much higher as far as on-site production processes are concerned. All of this, of course, has time and cost implications, which is certainly one of the key lessons learned in estimating new projects. In fact, building the first HPC vessel required a significant investment of time, planning and testing until the closing phase of the second 330-ton structure to achieve cost recovery and profitability.

Through this iterative process, we learned how to make process improvements, such as how to better weld the superstructure, how to fabricate the disc head differently, how to speed up nozzle assembly and welding, etc. We also determined how best to run the different parts of the structure fabrication in parallel, rather than doing all the work in one long sequence. However, given the limited working space in and around certain parts of the ship’s structure, only so many hands are safely available at any one time. We do not have the advantage of space that we might have, for example, for building aircraft carriers. The vessel had to be rotated in place during fabrication so that we could have the necessary working space to access all surfaces both externally and internally. Thereafter, we can manufacture the internal structure at the same time as the main container and finally put all the various elements together.

Turning knowledge into savings

Looking ahead, the time spent on initial design, development and program documentation early on can be safely and significantly reduced. In fact, the entire production cycle should be able to be reduced to two-thirds of the original cycle time, resulting in a more time-efficient execution of the program. Looking ahead, this will enable more cost-effective manufacturing.

All of these are valuable lessons that can be fed back into the nuclear space for other manufacturers facing similar challenges. In Vessco’s case, this includes the water industry, chemical manufacturing and the oil and gas sector. For example, it leads us to use empirical data on the length of time it takes to manufacture specific structures and components. All of this experience will be useful throughout the supply chain. Importantly, however, it can also add value to other market applications.

Interestingly, one of the drawbacks of the nuclear sector’s rigor is the speed and resistance to absorbing potential experience from other industries. For example, synergistic MIG welding technology is ideally suited to deliver neat fabrication quickly, but has not yet been approved for civil nuclear energy. In due course, for the right applications that may arise. At the same time, there is a good reason why most learning traffic is one-way.

Learning how to prepare inspection and test plans and to incorporate these plans into the organization of the workflow in advance, providing the correct soldering procedures for each application, and creating a library of procedures and techniques for future use, all feed into an outline of best practices designed to reduce time and improve quality. Repeatedly documenting learning in this manner ultimately reduces a 40-day process to 15 days while improving the quality and, above all, the safety of the final product. It is also clear that we are not alone; we are not alone. Our experience is being widely reflected elsewhere in the nuclear Level 2 and Level 3 nuclear supply chain.

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