How smart diagnosis is making nuclear power safer

Two cooling towers with white steam billowing out the top rise into a blue sky

New advanced monitoring and security systems could mark the start of a new era in nuclear power, according to research from our Professor Victor Becerra, deputy head of our School of Engineering.

The new smart diagnosis system is the work of Professor Becerra and colleagues from Portsmouth, Leeds Beckett and Liverpool universities, in collaboration with the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, India.

Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), their system will promptly detect breaks in a plant's coolant system and characterise the severity of the break, allowing operators in the control room to deal with any incident safely. Once installed, it could help prevent future repeats of disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima.

When a plant's coolant system fails, a bigger leak means a bigger problem. Currently, every nuclear plant in the world has an Emergency Core Cooling System (ECCS), which automatically takes appropriate actions if it detects a break.

To respond in the right way to a live leak, operators have to understand the size and severity of it. And it's for these moments that Professor Becerra's new systems are being developed.

But in the unlikely event that the ECCS fails, human intervention is still needed. To respond in the right way to a live leak, operators have to understand the size and severity of it. And it's for these moments that Professor Becerra's new systems are being developed.

They'll detect when a leak in the coolant system has taken place and, through the use of neural network computer models trained with transient data from simulated breaks, provide a numerical estimate of the severity of the break. 

By providing timely and accurate information - even for breaks not seen during the training of the models - the diagnosis provided will guide operators to take the right action at the right moment.

Concerns about electricity demand, air quality and climate change have led to renewed interest in nuclear power. But leaks and accidents - though extremely rare - have affected public trust in nuclear energy.

An important safety development for the industry, Dr Becerra's smart online monitoring could make an impact both inside the control room and far beyond it too. 

By helping restore public confidence, this work could lead to greater acceptance of nuclear power, and a better understanding of the benefits of nuclear power plants - by highlighting their reliability, their low operational costs, and their zero greenhouse gas emissions.