power plant safety

Greater Training Efficiency with a Nuclear Power Plant Simulator

Fears of global warming have been putting pressure on the electricity generating industry to reduce its use of fossil fuels for the past few decades. However, while there has been substantial progress in promoting a transition to alternative energy, there are, as yet, no grounds for celebration. Solar, wind and geothermal contributions alone cannot meet the world’s energy needs. Given that one ton of uranium can produce as much energy as 17 500 tons of coal, the nuclear power plant, and a suitable simulator to train its personnel, seem to be the most viable option to make up the shortfall.

Currently, uranium, enriched to maximise the trace quantities of its fissile U-235 isotope, provides the fuel source for most reactor types. These differ mainly in the methods used to control the core temperature, moderate the fission process and handle the heat generated. The pressurised water reactor (PWR) and the high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) are the most common of the various types operating commercially today. Each will require a specific nuclear power plant simulator for training purposes.

However, atomic energy is a rapidly evolving field in which scientists are constantly striving to improve safety and performance. Older gas-cooled units that utilise carbon dioxide as the coolant are being decommissioned in some countries and replaced by advanced reactors that employ helium as the coolant. While a typical PWR can produce superheated water at more than 300°C, helium gas emerges from the core at between 700°C and 900°C. The increased output results in more cost-effective electricity while providing additional heat for secondary industrial processes. A nuclear power plant simulator offers the safest and most effective way to learn how to manage these dangerously high temperatures.

Simulations have long been used as means to create real-world training scenarios. More than sixty years before the world’s first personal computer, new pilots received their introduction to controlled flight in a mock-up craft consisting of half a wooden barrel rocked by the instructor. By the second world war, more sophisticated replica aircraft were used for this purpose. However, it was only during the late ’70s that real-world scenarios in applications like a nuclear power plant simulator became technically possible following the advent of computer-generated graphic displays.

1978 marked the breakthrough that many people will remember as the golden age of the arcade video game when both children and adults were mesmerised by creations, such as Space Invaders, Tetris and Pac-Man. Like the hardware, computer graphics software has evolved by leaps and bounds since those early classics. Today, we have the power to create three-dimensional, full-colour images that are almost indistinguishable from the real thing. Now, trainee pilots can experience taking off and landing at any airport in the world without leaving the ground. Likewise, a nuclear power plant simulator can recreate a reactor’s control systems, enabling a trainee to make adjustments and observe the effects.

In the real world, a mistake could lead to a disaster like the events at Chernobyl. By contrast, in a simulated training environment, mistakes serve as a vital part of the learning experience. More importantly, a make-believe error can pose no danger to lives or equipment. Trainees can continue repeating a simulated action until it becomes a reflexive response when back in the workplace.

The potential value of a nuclear power plant simulator is borne out by the widespread adoption of this technology in other spheres. Healthcare is a sector that draws heavily on this form of training, using realistic but virtual scenarios in which surgeons can familiarise themselves with new procedures or trainee midwives can develop their knowledge and skills with no risk to their patients. Crane drivers, those at the helm of giant container ships and supertankers, all benefit from similar programmes to prepare them for the day they must perform these tasks in the field. 

A full-scope nuclear power plant simulator would cover every aspect of the day-to-day running of a high-temperature gas-cooled or pressurised water reactor. Alternatively, it may be possible only to purchase simulations of some of the more critical processes or to demonstrate the action of a fission reactor for teaching purposes. With sufficiently flexible software and the necessary skills, anything is possible.

In South Africa, one company is well-known for stretching the boundaries of this powerful training medium. SimGenics offers generic and bespoke products for the power generating industry, including HTGR and PWR nuclear power plant simulators.

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