INL simulation lab pioneering new technology

Director of Nuclear Energy Enabling Technologies Bruce Hallbert demonstrates what would happen if a nuclear reactor was tripped manually May 29 in the Human System Simulation Laboratory at the Energy Innovations Laboratory. Pat Sutphin /

Today’s computer interfaces are a mishmash of clickable icons, folders, custom windows and intuitive drop-down menus, all designed to perform functions with little physical effort.

So, it’s a little jarring to see sophisticated computer technology at Idaho National Laboratory that features touch-screen interfaces designed with digital representations of analog nobs, switches, dials and gauges — facsimiles straight out of the early Cold War-era.

The retro-interface is part of the Human System Simulation Laboratory and its purpose is far more forward-thinking than the relatively archaic gadgetry it emulates.

“What you see here is a faithful representation of what you see in nuclear power plant (control rooms) today, analog instrumentation and controls,” nuclear engineer Bruce Hallbert said. “It’s worked reliably and very well for many years, but to 60 years and beyond it’s unlikely that this technology is going to be sustainable.”

Hallbert is director of nuclear energy enabling technologies at INL.

In the U.S., the majority of the nuclear power plants, which produce about 20 percent of the nation’s power, are more than 40 years old. With the rapid advances in the technology market, there is a concern about finding reliable replacement parts.

Additionally, today’s upcoming workforce has limited knowledge of analog technology.

“Nuclear power is pretty much the only energy (industry) that still relies on analog instrumentation … how are we going to recruit people to maintain this technology when there aren’t many places to go with those skills in the future?” Hallbert said.

A lab goal is to develop and test digital replacement technologies, which can be incrementally incorporated into aging nuclear controls in the U.S., and eventually abroad.

“We can incorporate advanced visualization, digital controls … you can automate, add functionality and retrieve more contextualized information for operators,” Human Factors researcher Ron Boring said. “(The next step) is how do you, within this framework of replacing things on the board, optimize the display to help the operators do their job better.”

The lab’s near-perfect replica of a control room and its ability to customize, make it an ideal place for training. Operators can learn about dangerous or rare situations that could occur in a real plant, as well as test and train on newly developed technology.

Already, the lab is being used as a workshop by utility companies nationwide, such as Duke Energy’s Harris Nuclear Plant in North Carolina. A team of operators participated in a workshop Wednesday.

“This simulator allows us to evaluate our new turbine control system and train operators before we modify the plant. This is the only opportunity to work with the new system on this scale and see how it will integrate with other plant control systems,” Control Room Supervisor Robert Stephenson said in an email. “Based on what we learn here, we can modify the design to further improve plant safety and efficiency prior to implementation.”

Lab researchers plan to move beyond training and perform operator evaluations, which will be used for research and possibly even facilitate operator licencing.

“There are standards of performance in a nuclear control room and we want to establish that the performance of operators is as good on the new technology as the previous generation,” Hallbert said.

The lab is working with a dozen nuclear facilities to upgrade technology and provide training.

“This is not just a research facility, nuclear power owners and operators use this because there is no other facility like it,” Hallbert said. “We really are leading the way with utility partners to show how this can be done and done safely.”