Company rolls out full-scale mockup of reactor operations center
NuScale Power is still years away from building its first small modular reactor, but the company is hoping its new control room simulator will go a long way toward earning all-important Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval for its design.
The company has set aside 2,000 square feet in its Corvallis offices for a full-scale, fully functional mockup of a control room for a nuclear power plant containing 12 NuScale reactors capable of generating 540 megawatts of electricity, enough to power a city of half a million people.
The all-digital simulator has 12 computer workstations, one for each 45-megawatt reactor and electric turbine, plus a central station that provides an overview of the entire operation. Multiple monitors at each station display diagrams of various reactor systems and readouts of temperature, pressure and other key performance parameters in cool shades of gray and blue.
“The idea is that, when you put a color up, it needs to have a lot of value,” explained Charles Weaver, the company’s human factors engineer, during a tour of the new control room on Thursday.
“Some people say it kind of looks boring. The idea is we want you to be bored unless something’s going on.”
To illustrate his point, he reaches out and taps a touchscreen to simulate a shutdown of the No. 7 reactor. Monitors light up with bold swatches of red while digital readouts track falling power output and temperature levels.
While completely operational, the control room systems are still being tested and can be modified or reconfigured as needed.
A big part of Weaver’s job is to make sure that human operators can easily absorb critical information about reactor operations from the graphic displays on their screens. He can test different interface variations from a smaller control room at the rear of the simulator area, watching from behind one-way glass as operators respond to the simulated malfunctions he throws at them.
The system is highly automated and is set to trigger alarms in case of trouble, Weaver said. And in the event of a major disaster, like the earthquake and tsunami that knocked out electrical power to Japanese reactors at Fukushima last year, there’s an even more valuable backup: passive safety features built into NuScale’s design that allow cooling water to flow into the reactors without the need for pumps.
“There are valves we are holding closed with electricity,” Weaver said. “If it fails, the valves open into a safe position.”
Thomas Marcille, NuScale’s vice president for engineering, said it’s unusual to build a full-scale control system at this stage of the certification process, but the company felt it was important to clearly demonstrate its safety procedures to federal regulators.
“We could write it all down on paper and they’d say, ‘Great.’ But they come in here and look at it and touch it and handle it, and it makes it much more tangible,” Marcille said.
“This lets the NRC come in and take it for a test drive.”
NuScale is one of several companies vying to be the first to win NRC certification for a small modular reactor design. The Corvallis company is also competing for $226 million in matching funds from the Department of Energy to help bankroll the cost of development as it prepares to submit its application for regulatory approval.
CEO Paul Lorenzini called the control room part of an aggressive strategy to convince federal regulators and energy investors that the company’s design is both safe and commercially viable.
“NuScale’s first-mover status has allowed the company to set the standard for small modular reactors,” he said. “NuScale established the first operational test facility, the first customer advisory board, and now the first full-scale control room simulator.”
Contact reporter Bennett Hall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-758-9529.