Many of the world’s nuclear reactors are more than 20 years old

Rolls-Royce, the aero-engine group, wants to expand its footprint in the civil nuclear services market by using data analytics to predict when power stations will break down.

The move comes as the world’s nuclear industry is under pressure to reduce operating costs as it faces stiff competition amid rising gas-fired and renewable energy capacity.

“Our vision is to get to where aerospace is, to emulate the ‘live tracking’ of the health of different components,” said Rob Fletcher, head of civil nuclear at Rolls-Royce.

The FTSE 100 group is keen to use its expertise in “predictive” maintenance, where data generated from sensors gives an unprecedented insight into the performance of engines and other products, allowing customers to predict equipment issues and maintenance requirements.

Much of the world’s nuclear reactors are more than 20 years old and the costs of maintaining these and holding “just in case” inventory are significant. Being able to predict when certain components require maintenance can enable an operator to cut down on the downtime of a reactor and help with purchasing costs.

Rolls-Royce said it held operating data on more than one-third of the world’s nuclear reactors through the acquisition five years ago of a US-based engineering services business, PKMJ Technical Services. At present the company is using historic data to predict maintenance issues but its ambition is to use live data.

It signed an agreement last year with Bruce Power, a Canadian electricity company, to deploy a digital technology tool that uses operating data to help the company improve the operational efficiency of its reactors.

Mr Fletcher said the company estimated utilities in North America alone could benefit from potential cost savings of about $4bn through improved cash flow and operating costs just by focusing on the maintenance and inventory work that Rolls-Royce could already offer. The company has held exploratory talks with a number of European operators.

There was interest from operators, Mr Fletcher said, but it was still “early days”. One of the challenges was cultural as “some of the savings manifest in people”.

Other companies, notably some of the operators themselves, are also looking at predictive maintenance. GE Hitachi launched a data analytics project with Exelon in 2015 to help enhance the performance of nuclear power plants. EDF Energy, the UK arm of France’s EDF, which is building two reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset, said its current maintenance strategy involved “a range of approaches, of which predictive maintenance is one”.

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