IT Innovations for the Nuclear Revolution

1 November 2007 (Last Updated November 1st, 2007 18:30)

IBM has furthered its commitment to research in the nuclear sector with a new facility in France. Catherine Lafferty takes a look at how IT can improve safety and innovation in the industry.

IT Innovations for the Nuclear Revolution
IBM’s La Gaude facility is a state-of-the-art IT hub in the South of France.

Any mention of the Côte d'Azur in the South of France usually calls to mind vivid images of sun-drenched Provencal villages and glitzy seaside resorts. But this most glamorous of destinations now also plays host to a facility that could not be more removed from stardust-sprinkled Cannes hotels. IBM's new nuclear power centre of excellence at La Gaude is, in its own way, just as trendsetting and probably more lucrative than any resort.

IBM La Gaude industry solution centre, a 930m² state-of-the-art IT hub, recreates real-life scenarios across a number of industries. The Center of Excellence for Nuclear Power, which resides within the IBM La Gaude facility, is aimed at supporting safe, reliable and efficient electricity generation by energy companies worldwide. The Centre for Nuclear Power officially opened in July this year.

Environmental concerns about fossil fuels are gathering pace but the need for safe, reliable energy is as great as ever and nuclear-generated electricity increasingly seems to provide an attractive solution to the dilemma.

The international IT specialists have clearly been convinced enough of the growth opportunities of nuclear-generated energy to expand their presence in the sector.

According to lead architect Frederic Bauchot, IBM is convinced it has seized precisely the right moment to open the new centre.

"This is well-timed, as policy makers in Europe, Asia and the US are examining ways to constrain carbon emissions while at the same time diversify their respective energy portfolios," he says.

It is not only now that IBM can see the benefits of researching such an industry. Jean Michel Corrieu, manager of IBM La Gaude, says the company has a strong belief in the long-term attractiveness of nuclear-generated energy.

"We see this industry of intelligent power generation developing around the world because of global warming and the world's energy," he says. "Governments are committed to producing energy in a safe way and we have responded to our clients' calls asking us to help them achieve this."

IBM AND POWER GRID

IBM says the centre caters for more than 30 countries worldwide operating nuclear reactors for electricity generation, each with different needs. Guido Bartels, general manager at IBM Global Energy and Utilities Industry, says the company is in a unique position to be able to help.

"The centre caters for more than 30 countries worldwide operating nuclear reactors for electricity generation, each with different needs."

"This project is consistent with our long-term strategic vision that a diverse energy portfolio – including nuclear power and renewable energy – as well as more efficient fossil generation, and a smart (technology) grid are the solutions to meeting growing global energy demand while protecting the environment," he says.

Grid computing, in IBM's terms, is all about virtualisation and distributing computing resources to allow seamless access to IT capabilities. This can not only make computing more stable but, in the long term, help to reduce emissions as a result of IT.

IBM has invested $10m in La Gaude, which is the latest addition to IBM's portfolio of centres and research labs focused on the energy and utilities industry. Other IBM Industry Solution Centers can be found in Dallas, Texas, US; Tokyo, Japan and Beijing, China, as well as the IBM Austin Research Lab in Austin, Texas, US.

For France, the investment made in the centre has been quite significant. Corrieu says that the size of the company's investment here demonstrates the importance IBM currently attaches to the nuclear industry – a growth area where IT can be used to help promote safety and reliability.

SAFETY FIRST

In May 2007 an incident at the Tennessee Valley Authority nuclear plant in the US resulted in two of the reactors being closed down by hand, underlining the importance of IT systems to the industry.

"An incident at the Tennessee Valley Authority nuclear plant in the US resulted in two of the reactors being closed down by hand, underlining the importance of IT systems."

Corrieu says the important role IT now plays in delivering safer nuclear energy is paramount. "The safety of nuclear plants relies on business processes, such as IT solutions," he says. "So what we are doing at La Gaude is linking the nuclear business with the IT industry."

IBM La Gaude provides a constellation of services to the nuclear-generated energy sector and supports improved design, construction, safety and the operation of power plants based on IBM software, hardware, consulting and services industry offerings.

These include IT systems design and architecture consulting, high-performance computing and advanced simulation/modelling capabilities.

IBM also offers Enterprise Asset Management and Plant Life Cycle Management solutions aimed at both extending existing nuclear power plant life as well as streamlining new plant construction.

A variety of IBM and independent software vendors' applications are provided, aimed at the nuclear power industry. The centre supports the IBM Maximo Asset Management solution, a core application used by nuclear power operators to help manage critical operational and IT assets during their life cycle.

According to Corrieu, carefully organised and efficient management of assets is fundamental for the success of the operation. "The life cycle, radioactivity, protection of the equipment and maintenance planning is integrated in IT solutions," Corrieu says.

ADDRESSING CHALLENGES

Corrieu says the centre also hopes to address a lot of key issues through its research that have previously held the nuclear industry back. Challenges incurred through managing a nuclear power station range from fuel life cycle management, the life extension of nuclear power plants and maintenance, and work optimisation for the execution of reliable programmes.

"Our IT tools support scheduling, reporting and planning the technicians' activities in a safe manner."

"To address these challenges, nuclear power companies need to apply innovative thinking, coupled with advanced technology, to develop appropriate solutions," he says.

"IBM is uniquely qualified to meet this need."

IBM La Gaude comes equipped with new laboratory infrastructure for nuclear solutions, new live solution prototypes for demonstrations and a hosting facility to run work sessions with clients.

A particular feature of La Gaude is its hosting of specialists applying service-oriented architecture (SOA) principles. SOA allows companies of all sizes to reuse their existing investments in software and hardware, so that their businesses are run more efficiently, flexibly and securely.

"This will track the work order for the technicians in the nuclear plants and is achieved with a lot of procedures," says Corrieu. "Our IT tools support these procedures, scheduling, reporting and planning the technicians' activities in a safe manner."

A year ago IBM acquired two US companies which would complement its nuclear industry strategy; FileNet, a provider of business process and content management solutions, was acquired for $1.6bn and MRO software, an independent US-based software company, for $740m. MRO produces asset management software for the nuclear industry and equips 25% of all nuclear plants in the US. MRO products have been fully installed in La Gaude.

THE FRENCH REVOLUTION

The choice of location is not accidental. IBM La Gaude is also well situated to take advantage of deployment and modelling of nuclear equipment in nearby Cadarache, site of the International Thermo Nuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) fusion project.

"France possesses world-class expertise in the area of nuclear power."

In addition, IBM has long been involved in consulting and design of IT systems for the nuclear industry, which is more developed in France than many other countries.

Some 80% of energy in France is generated by nuclear power, hence the accumulation of French experience in the sector, as Frederic Bauchot points out.

"France possesses world-class expertise in the area of nuclear power," he says. "Establishment of the centre enables IBM to utilise not only local IBM talent and experience in nuclear systems design and implementation, but also advanced skills of a leading nuclear power market."

Indeed, for IBM, local talent and experience in nuclear systems design and implementation as well as the advanced skills of a leading nuclear power market are critical for realising its goal of safe and reliable electricity generation.

"This initiative reinforces IBM's globally integrated enterprise strategy; drawing on local specialist skills and knowledge to serve clients across the globe," Corrieu says.

The IBM Nuclear Advisory Council will govern the nuclear centre at La Gaude. In addition, IBM has said that it expects to forge strategic partnerships with other companies and nuclear industry regulators.

Corrieu emphasises that IBM La Gaude is, above all, a client-oriented centre. "IBM has client teams in all countries and the world's large companies are our typical target market," he says. "The centre is an innovation tool and differentiator for all of our clients."