What do you think of when you hear the word “simulator”? Before working at nuclear plants, whenever I heard the word ‘simulator’ I only thought of video games or something I could climb in to see what a flight in a jet would feel like. The nuclear reactor simulators I am now familiar with are quite a bit more sophisticated than that!
I encourage you to watch this quarter’s Vogtle Timeline video because you can see some of the cool stuff happening on site, but also because I’m in it! When they’re talking about the simulator, you will catch me on there a few times! The video clip shows an exact replica of what the control room of the plant will look like and demonstrates how its indicators will behave. Correspondingly, the operators treat practicing in a nuclear plant simulator with the same respect as being in the actual control room. They look the same; the idea being that you should feel like you’re in the actual control room, even when training in the simulator.
“In the U.S., all nuclear plants build an exact replica nuclear simulator of their specific control room and keep it up to date”
Like my choir director used to say, “You’ll perform like you practice, so practice like you want to perform.” In the U.S., all nuclear plants build an exact replica simulator of their specific control room and keep it up to date (as precise as changing out a knob or a display if its equivalent in the actual control room gets replaced by a different design).
Check out the attached picture of a training simulator that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) operates. There are a lot of parts to keep in sync! The effect is not quite as impressive in control rooms that are primarily monitors, but the simulator updates will still occur in the advanced control room style of new plants. If the actual control rooms have monitors of a certain model and they are updated to a newer model, you can bet that the simulator will reflect that change as well!
There is a lot more than the physical configuration and hardware to a reactor simulator. There is a room full of computer equipment with extremely advanced software that imitates the plant and its response to actions taken in the control room. So if you turn on a pump or withdraw a control rod assembly, the displays will show those actions and their effects on the whole system. This is an invaluable tool in teaching operators (and engineers alike) to see how the plant would respond to various stimuli. Especially at a new plant, having a simulator this early in the process of construction means that we can already start to find ways to improve the processes and procedures we will one day use to operate the plant.
A unique opportunity that such advanced simulators offer is the chance to run scenarios that you wouldn’t normally see in the plant. Simulator instructors at all plants are able to cause sensors to act as if they have failed and equipment to respond as if it were broken so that operators can practice responding to such situations. They can go as far as simulating accident scenarios for the operators to work through so they are ready to respond to anything, no matter how unlikely it is in real life.
Training has a high priority in my industry. It’s one of my favorite things about it. I love learning and I know that no matter how long I work in nuclear power, I’ll always have an opportunity to learn something new and continue my education. Whether on a nuclear reactor simulator or in the real plant, I’ll be doing my part to help us continually improve.