Research Facility Advancing Nuclear Power Technology

Issue 2 and Volume 116.

By Brian Wheeler, Associate Editor

The Center for Advanced Engineering and Research is helping lead research and development activities for the power generation industry. Developed within Virginia’s Region 2000 partnership, a network of organizations charged with providing regional development within 2,000 square miles in Virginia, CAER is an industry-specific research and development center that was formed to help bridge the gap between industry and university, and federal research, specifically wireless communications and nuclear power.

The Center for Advanced Engineering and Research is an industry-led research center in that it provides a research university environment. Photo courtesy of Virginia Hamrick Photography and CAER.

“Clearly, two of the biggest industry clusters for our region are the nuclear power industry and wireless communications,” said Bob Bailey, executive director for CAER. “And it is unique to have two major companies that design and build nuclear power plants in one place.”

Equipment for the B&W mPower reactor prototype is lowered into the tower of the Integrated System Test facility in July 2011. Photo courtesy of Babcock & Wilcox.

Bailey is speaking of Areva and Babcock & Wilcox, both of which have offices near the CAER facility in Bedford County, Va., that opened in August 2011. Both companies are also conducting testing programs in the 30,000-square-foot, two-story facility. Nearly 70 percent of the space is dedicated to industry research with another 20 percent being used for education and community outreach. The centerpiece of the CAER building is a 3,000-square-foot space designed to be a reconfigurable control room for the next generation of nuclear plants. In that room, two areas of focus include the shift from analog to digital instrumentation and controls.

Engineers use a human factors observation room to monitor plant operator performance in the digital main control room of the full-scope simulator at the Center for Advanced Engineering & Research in Central Virginia. Photo courtesy of Areva.

“The shift from analog to digital I&C systems is what sets the Center for Advanced Engineering and Research apart from other R&D facilities,” said Bailey.

To upgrade to digital, operators must know how digital systems work. With that comes the necessary training on the systems. At CAER, researchers will observe as operators use flat screen monitors, computer mice and touch screens rather than dials, lights, knobs and switches.

Four major programs are currently taking place at CAER, two of which relate to the development of the next generation of nuclear power plants.

One program taking place at CAER is the Center for Safe and Secure Nuclear Energy, which is centered around the control room, digital I&C, human factors and simulator capabilities. Even though the Areva EPR simulator is the first simulator to be installed at the facility, Bailey said the platform will have the ability to support multiple simulators. The Center does have plans in place to add a generic pressurized water reactor simulator.

In January, Areva began conducting human factors testing at the Center. Using the highly-digital, full-scope main control room simulator that was assembled to replicate the next generation nuclear power control rooms, the human factors lab piece to the control room can capture human performance data. With a separate observation room, operators using the simulators can be watched by researchers as they control the simulator. The engineering simulator is equipped with four main work stations. At each customized, handmade Winsted work station are 10, 24-inch monitors. These monitors are equipped with the model operators need to operate an EPR plant. Also, the engineering model that drives the screens can give operators an algorithm of what happens to each component, if the reactor were to be tripped.

“This means a lot to a center like CAER,” said Paris Stringfellow, Human Factors engineer for Areva. “Now they are moving beyond generic usability studies.

Using mounted cameras in the control room, one-way mirrors for observation and having the ability to record screen usage, understanding how control room operators behave has been taken to a new level, said Stringfellow. With the use of biometric data, researchers now know when operators are under stress. With the use of eye trackers, researchers can also capture eye movements and pupil responses.

“The primary use for this facility is research,” said Bailey. “There are a lot of simulators for training. To have one that can be configured and set up for research was non-existent.”

B&W is also in the midst of its mPower small modular reactor testing program at CAER. B&W began the testing phase of its newly-constructed Integrated System Test facility before the end of 2011. The IST facility includes a scaled prototype of the B&W mPower reactor that will undergo testing. The prototype reactor is installed in a 117-foot-tall tower where operators will run a variety of real-world scenarios to gather data to support licensing activities with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Chris Mowry, Babcock & Wilcox Nuclear Energy, Inc. president, said as one of the first small modular reactors to be developed in the West, there are still many unanswered questions from regulators, such as how computer codes and methods that were developed for large reactors model the performance when used in a SMR. And although the underlying technology is similar, the architecture of the system is different.

“We do believe the codes and processes are properly modeled, but we do have to prove it,” said Mowry.

All of the technical features of the B&W mPower integral reactor are included in the IST, although the source of energy is electricity rather than nuclear. Mowry said the program is not just a model of the reactor, either. The test system models 100 percent of the entire mPower nuclear island including every valve, component, heat exchanger, etc.

“Everything that is in the real nuclear island is in this,” he said. “We can really evaluate the performance of not just the reactor, but the entire nuclear system of mPower. That is why the testing is more extensive.”

Although B&W does have its own dedicated testing areas, the company will use the 3,000-sqaure-foot CAER control room for generic issues, said Bailey. Once testing is complete after a five-year baseline program, B&W plans to use the IST facility to train utility personnel who will be operating B&W mPower reactors in the field.

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