Safer Nuclear Sites


Bottom image: The Human System Simulation Laboratory at the Idaho National Laboratory is a full-scale, virtual nuclear control room. Image: Idaho National Laboratory

One of the roles that the U.S. Department of Energy assigns to its national laboratories is to study nuclear safety and cleanup. At one of the labs, a project is simulating a nuclear control room to test the safety of proposed technical upgrades. Another lab is looking at a way to clean groundwater contamination at the site of a former nuclear refinement area.

The Human Systems Simulator Lab at the Idaho National Laboratory, Idaho Falls, ID, has been up and running since this spring. Researchers there can test the safety of proposed technological replacements before they’re implemented in actual nuclear control rooms. The control-room simulator has a role to play as plants upgrade to digital systems, because presently mostly use analog systems, said Richard Reister, manager of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Light Water Reactor Sustainability Program in the Office of Nuclear Energy. The control-room simulator was funded as a project of the sustainability program. The Idaho National Laboratory contributed research and a site for the simulator.

The simulator helps engineers improve control-room designs by giving them insight into humans’ interactions with the proposed instruments and a prediction of humans’ responses to alarms. The simulations help planners evaluate operator performance and safety risks before proposed instruments and interfaces are installed in a plant, Reister said.

The virtual nuclear control room is used to test the safety and reliability of proposed technological changes before they're implemented in actual nuclear control rooms.


After the lab has gathered data, the simulation results will be available for any company in the nuclear industry to use in control-room modern­ization, said Bruce Hallbert, a manager for the Light Water Reactor Sustainability Program.

“The goal of control room modernization is to replace aging analog technology,” Hallbert said. “We want to enhance the functionality and safety of operating nuclear power plants by leveraging the capabilities of new digital technologies.”

The control-room simulator mimics digital systems and the analog systems now typically used in many plants, including physical controls such as valves, gauges, keyboards, and touch screens, Reister said.  It includes glass-top touch-sensitive panels that can be reconfigured to duplicate digital and analog control boards within control rooms of any operating nuclear plant.

The Human Systems Simulation Lab is currently running three plant control models, with most development efforts focused on Shearon Harris Nuclear Plant in North Carolina, the first of many simulations for industry partner Duke Energy, as the company begins digitizing its nuclear plants, Reister said.

The goal of control room modernization is to replace aging analog technology.

Bruce Hallbert,
Light Water Reactor
Sustainability Program


December 2013

by Jean Thilmany, Associate Editor, Mechanical Engineering