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Improved Operator Education with a Nuclear Reactor Simulator

When Einstein derived his iconic equation relating energy, mass and the speed of light, he would likely have been astounded by the incredible amount of potential energy locked within the nucleus of a single atom. However, when that energy was finally released in an instantaneous chain reaction, the devastating results vastly exceeded the expectations and, in some cases, the fears of those who made this extraordinary achievement possible. Today, controlled atomic fission reactions provide many with electricity, and a nuclear reactor simulator is, undoubtedly, the safest and most effective way to demonstrate its action and learn how it works. 

Fission occurs when a neutron collides with an atom of uranium-235, the only naturally-occurring fissile isotope of this element. The initial collision releases additional neutrons that, in turn, strike the surrounding atoms to create a continuing chain reaction, releasing heat and deadly gamma radiation. Control rods of neutron-absorbing elements such as cadmium and boron are used to prevent the reaction from going critical and causing a core meltdown like that at Chernobyl. Under the circumstances, a nuclear reactor simulator remains the best way to study and understand this increasingly important process.

Given the growing evidence of global warming and the contribution of fossil fuel-burning power plants to the earth’s rapidly growing carbon footprint, a transition to greener methods of energy production is now a priority. While hydroelectric schemes are an option, they can also create environmental anomalies. Solar power, wind farms and the heat from geothermal sources are all viable alternatives. However, collectively, these produce only a small percentage of the world’s total power needs. Instead, many nations see atomic power as the most viable solution. Inevitably, a nuclear reactor simulator will prove to be the method of choice for instructing new operators.

Despite the technical challenges involved in initiating and controlling an atomic fission reaction and containing the associated gamma radiation, the massive amount of energy released in the form of heat has a surprisingly commonplace function. Like the heat obtained from burning natural gas, diesel oil or coal, its sole, low-tech purpose is to boil water and create the steam necessary to drive the turbine of an electrical generator. The processes involved in heat production and its subsequent use can be combined in a full-scope nuclear reactor simulator or presented as a series of individual activities.

Operating a nuclear power plant involves multiple tasks. Each of these involves precise handling to ensure safety and an uninterrupted flow of electricity to the reticulation system. The core of a pressurised water reactor (PWR) consists of a matrix of fissile fuel rods and control rods to manage the reaction. The composite structure is immersed in water, which must remain liquid at all times, and contained within the reactor pressure vessel. 

With the help of a nuclear reactor simulator, operators can trace the movement of water through the reactor’s core, where it is heated to over 300°C before passing through the steam generator. Next, they can observe how the superheated liquid heats water in the secondary coolant loop to create the steam needed to drive the turbine. Each step of the overall process is managed through an appropriate control system. A well-designed simulation can guide the observer through each of the necessary procedures and demonstrate the effect of each action. 

The freedom to repeat each step as often as necessary to ensure complete understanding makes the nuclear reactor simulator an invaluable option for both trainers and trainees. Multiple trainees can study the simulation via a computer network simultaneously when displaying it via a computer network. Furthermore, a networked system will allow each learner to learn at a pace that ensures they fully understand each step before proceeding to the next.

While safety is a primary concern in any generating plant, public concern fueled by incidents like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl necessitates even tighter precautionary measures when operating a nuclear reactor. Understandably, it will be safer for all if trainers employ a nuclear reactor simulator to familiarise learners with potentially dangerous practical procedures.

High-temperature gas-cooled reactors (HTGR) use helium gas as the primary coolant and graphite as the moderator. Simulations for both PWR and HTGR plants are available in South Africa from SimGenics. In addition, the company offers products similar to these nuclear reactor simulators for coal and gas-fired plants and the mining, petrochemical and desalination industries.

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