Nuclear facilities use millions of parts, materials and consumables, making for an extensive supply chain that is hard to track using traditional paper-based audits. Here, some suggest that a permission-based blockchain ledger system might offer better efficiency, transparency, risk mitigation and security capabilities to help assure supplier competence and accountability.
The Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) published a report in April exploring the potential use of blockchain data technology in the nuclear sector. Currently there is no established good-practice guidance specific to the nuclear sector covering the use of blockchain, and no definitive UK regulatory regime to regulate DLT (distributed ledger technology) such as blockchain. However, following engagement with a site licensee and an organisation in its supply chain, ONR says that its existing guidance is suitable for the regulation of blockchain applications in the short and medium term.
Like any software platform, blockchain demands a thorough approach proportionate to the risks. For instance, clearly-defined specifications can help overcome reported challenges connected with maintaining data ownership and contending with finite flexibility when undertaking design revisions. Interfaces with existing systems and software developed to migrate data into DLT are common error traps. These processes, and their potential obsolescence, necessitate proactive management. ONR therefore advises reducing risk by taking a phased approach to implementation.
OUT OF THE BLOCKS
Among those pioneering the use of blockchain is the Sellafield nuclear site, owned by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), which released a report on the technology in summer 2022. Sellafield worked with Digital Catapult to run a ‘DLT Field Lab’ that would explore how distributed systems and DLT might solve two key nuclear industry challenges: tracking nuclear waste and managing worker credentials. Start-ups RKVST and Condatis partnered with Sellafield to develop solutions.
The start-ups delivered several elements that could potentially provide significant cost and time savings, such as: improved data transparency and multi-party coordination, improved item-level traceability, digital auditability, automated compliance with regulations and enhanced digital security.
Sellafield employs around 11,000 people. There are 600 job functions that require every worker to be a suitably qualified and experienced person (SQEP), and over 2,000 different tasks that only those with appropriate qualifications can complete. Managing and verifying the credentials of diverse personnel across the nuclear estate and related supply chain is a significant challenge, involving multiple independent partners, various reporting and issuing authorities, and continual updates to training and security profiles.
NUCLEAR PASSPORT PROTOTYPE
The major objective of the ‘nuclear passport’ challenge was to create a working prototype for a digital solution that could optimise employee/external worker on-boarding and movement, while also delivering secure and verifiable credentials. Additional ambitions included enabling end-user control over personal data, integrating with (and functioning across) multiple NDA sites, and providing cost savings and operational gains.
In terms of the technical solution, the team deployed Condatis Credential Gateway technology to facilitate the demonstration of Sellafield’s identity and training use cases. The team used two parallel self-sovereign identity (SSI) software stacks, interacting with existing data sources within a simulated Sellafield and wider NDA trusted framework. The first stack focused on data-oriented design, using a cloud-based centralised ‘identity hub’ (or encrypted data vault) for storing credentials. It relies on Microsoft’s SSI stack (the Microsoft Azure Active Directory Verifiable Credentials platform).
The second stack deploys Evernym’s Verity credentialing platform in a decentralised agent-oriented approach. This platform sits upon the Sovrin blockchain network, using nodes maintained and managed by a consortium of reputable organisations (stewards).
Among major deliverables for both solutions were: the potential to issue, review and revoke SQEP credentials; the ability for users to store credentials in a mobile wallet; and for them to disclose credentials selectively. Furthermore, Condatis established methods to confirm the sub-components of an SQEP credential individually, and cumulatively verify existing SQEP status.
Essentially, the nuclear worker passport provides Sellafield with an irrefutable record of security clearance and training credentials, and a simple and effective way to verify SQEP. Presently, issuing credentials to confirm competence can take anywhere from three weeks to three months. The report suggests that by implementing a verifiable credentials solution, Sellafield reduced time to on-board and off-board workers by about 80%.
The final prototype was successfully trialled with Sellafield site staff and wider nuclear estate partners. With mobile phones configured to host digital wallets, the stored credentials are highly portable. Credentials can accompany the worker and offer up verification on demand when moving from one location to another.
“The field lab process has proven to be a safe and impactful way to explore the adoption of DLT for Sellafield,” says Edwin Matthews, head of technical & new capability - remediation, at Sellafield.
Richard Thompson, enterprise data manager at Sellafield, adds: “This project helped us transform our ways of working internally, to be more adaptable and ready to work with innovators, while demystifying the adoption of emerging technologies such as DLT for us and our close stakeholders.”
So, will Sellafield, which has an annual budget of over £2.1 billion, be adopting blockchain for its own workers and its many supply chain partners? No word as yet: today’s official line from the Sellafield team is “not much we can add to the content already available in the report”. However, RKVST and Condatis are now exploring a potential collaboration to link worker credentialing to waste management data access.
BLOCKCHAIN AND THE REGULATORS
As part of a note providing a legal and regulatory perspective, British-American multinational law firm Norton Rose Fulbright says that blockchain has the potential to increase supply chain transparency when applied to the nuclear power sector.
The firm indicates that among key blockchain applications is the uranium fuel supply chain, which involves a number of parties and a significant amount of supervision, extending from the mine, fuel processing and purchase, to plant operation. As national and international regulators require the tracking of nuclear material and the keeping of records for each movement, storing these records on a blockchain platform has the potential for greater supply chain transparency.
Following the implementation of processes such as PLM and building information modelling (BIM), it is possible to trace assets over their lifecycle. BIM is proving crucial to the successful planning and construction of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, for example, monitoring the movement of materials and helping to reduce the risk of delay. To optimise the use of BIM, however, changes in workflow and practices must also occur, as implementing the software alone is not enough. The supply chain must ensure software deployment and data updates so that digital records represent physical reality.
One caveat is that project participants will need to trust the information that the model contains. Blockchain can address questions of trust, says the firm, by securely tracking and making available to participants the information uploaded to it, leading to increased accountability for contributors if something goes wrong and enabling effective tracking of materials over their (often lengthy) lifecycle.