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Insights Embracing digital transformation in the nuclear industry

As part of our #PeopleDriveResults campaign, this week we have caught up with Samuel Stephens, our Chief Engineer, Digital Leader based in Warrington, UK.

Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do

I work with our teams around the world to drive digital transformation into the work we do with our clients and partners. I keep abreast of all the digital services and solutions available and use them to provide solutions for our clients, which draws upon my problem solving, teamwork and technical expertise. I’m lucky that I can leverage this knowledge that I’ve developed during my time working for Atkins and AtkinsRéalis . I also work with our teams of brilliant engineers around the world, showing clients new ways of working and innovative solutions. Each day is different, and the to-do list is never ending!

What inspired you to take an active interest in energy?

I remember first learning about nuclear fission and fusion through Grolier Encyclopedia on my Apple Mac computer in 1995. As a teenage science geek, it fascinated me. Fast forward a few years and I found myself being interviewed for a job with Atkins Nuclear, who at the time were doing some brilliant work in seismic design and assessment of structures for UK nuclear clients. As a student I’d worked in combined heat and power and had just returned from a year abroad studying at UC Berkeley in California. It felt like the perfect job because it combined my new interest in earthquake engineering, my experience working in power generation and the exciting challenges presented by the nuclear sector. Since then, our energy challenges seem to continually grow and become more complex with the need to engineer an affordable, secure and net zero energy system. What engineer wouldn’t want to tackle that challenge?!

What kind of energy projects have you been involved in professionally?

I’ve been lucky to have had a really broad range of opportunities during my time working for Atkins and more recently AtkinsRéalis . In the nuclear sector we have three key focus areas: dealing with and cleaning up our legacy through decommissioning, keeping existing assets generating to supply low carbon power today, and helping deliver new power stations to deliver our net zero energy targets tomorrow.

At the moment we’re involved in some great projects bringing digital innovations to support each of these focus areas. Clients in the UK, Canada and Japan are all seeing opportunities to adopt 3D and 4D Building Information Modelling approaches to better plan decommissioning projects and deliver them. We also see data science playing a bigger role, particularly to help reduce unplanned maintenance and improve performance on operating power stations and offshore wind farms. In this space we’re also leveraging Artificial Intelligence and machine vision to automatically identify defects or areas of concern in inspection data. There is an exciting and growing portfolio of nuclear new build fission and fusion projects where we are adopting digital design approaches from the outset with a view to establishing a digital twin of the plant to support operations.

What is the coolest thing that you’ve had the opportunity to be a part of in your career?

I think working with our teams developing our solutions in the digital and robotics space has been quite mind blowing. Four years ago, I was in a position of knowing that robotics would be important for our sector, but not having a clear view of how we could fully exploit them on our clients’ projects. Within a year I was wheeling around a collaborative robot arm that even my kids could play with on the kitchen counter! With that we found that we could help reduce risks to glovebox operators on nuclear sites by substituting their arms with a robot. Our agile approach has since led to a multi-million-pound programme of work where we are bringing together a crack squad of digital engineers and systems integrators to develop a remote operations capability. I could never have dreamt that we would have made such progress when I first met one of our project partners in Montreal three years ago!

What do you think the biggest change to the energy sector will be in our lifetime?

Definitely decarbonization and digitalization. The scale of decarbonization required to tackle climate change is mind blowing. Eighty percent of our energy comes from fossil fuels, and while efficiency and electrification can help dent some of this, it seems like people outside of our company are only just starting to truly appreciate how radical a change to our energy system this presents. We’ll need a lot of renewables, nuclear, energy storage and some really smart digital solutions to engineer better systems and intelligently align supply and demand. We should expect our energy system to be more connected and more intelligent, but a lot of it will be invisible to us. Unfortunately, most consumers care only about whether they can watch Netflix and drive their car, not the nuts and bolts of what makes that happen.

Just for fun… You get to design your own spaceship. What fuel source do you use?

Nuclear gets a lot of criticism for cost and safety (both of which depend on how you look at it), but one thing that is incredible and undisputable about nuclear is its energy density. If you want a lot of energy in a very small space it is unrivalled. In this respect nuclear makes a lot of sense for life support systems on a spaceship. For propulsion I love the idea of massive solar sails that help accelerate the craft with every photon that hits them. I’ve often wondered about how to feed the passengers on a spaceship – in this respect perhaps oil in the ground will one day be our lunchbox to be reformed into edible food, just like in Star Trek or Red Dwarf.

Tell us about your favorite hobby

Outside of work, when I’m not running around after my two sons I’m usually running around somewhere outside. I started running about four years ago in advance of going away with some friends with the aim of being able to keep up with a couple of them who ran a lot. I remember slogging up hills and being half dead near the top but knowing that with training I could get fitter and faster. I found that it also fit really well with work – packing a pair of trainers in an overnight bag is easy and opens up opportunities to see places when travelling. My most surreal experience was running around the Imperial Palace walls in Tokyo at 6am before meetings with Japanese clients that day!

I’ve progressively stepped up my race distance and have now completed one marathon and two ultramarathons. As it happens, I think there is quite a lot of alignment between running and the work we do to drive digital into our work in nuclear. Performance data and learning from experience help focus on what needs to be done differently next time, whether that is in preparation for an event or when executing it. This year I’m planning on stepping up to a 135-mile three-day event in September. I’m probably crazy, but believe I can do it with the right preparation and a positive mindset, both of which are true for delivering a lot of our most difficult engineering projects!

What is your favourite book and why?

I really enjoyed Elon Musk’s biography written by Ashlee Vance. He gets a lot of criticism for some of the things he says and does, but the book gives a bit of an insight into the way he thinks about problems and how he sees the world. His ability to solve problems from a first principles perspective really resonates with me and aligns to a lot of the way we try to look at engineering safe systems in nuclear. There are very few people in the world with such big ambitions but also willing to try and fail at things. At one point he was close to running out of cash and simultaneously trying to launch a brand-new electric car while putting rockets into space. There is a saying about walking a mile in someone’s shoes. I’m fine with people not liking him, but I’d recommend reading the book before forming any fixed opinions!