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article imageNRC licenses first digital nuclear reactor in the U.S.

By Karen Graham     Jul 11, 2019 in Technology
A fully digital nuclear reactor instrumentation and control system (I&C)—the first of its kind in the U.S.—at a Purdue University research reactor in West Lafayette, Indiana, has been licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
Originally built in 1962Purdue University Reactor Number 1 (PUR 1) is a pool-type12-kWt reactor that runs at 1 kW. Upgrades to digitalize the reactor and its research facility began in 2012 under a grant from the Department of Energy (DOE).
The university submitted a license amendment request to upgrade the I&C system in February 2017, allowing a switch from traditional analog technology to the latest advances in digital technology, something other countries are already doing.
On April 1, 2019, the NRC granted the unprecedented license, allowing the University to upgrade its systems. The license also - for the first time - allows the use of parts certified under the German Nuclear Safety Standards Commission (KTA) rather than under our domestic standards.
Corporate partners could use Purdue’s facility as a model for testing ways to improve industry rea...
Corporate partners could use Purdue’s facility as a model for testing ways to improve industry reactors.
Purdue University/ Vincent Walter
The NRC said it accepted the parts through the agency’s initiative for a "risk-informed and performance-based regulatory process." On July 8, Purdue announced the upgrades have been completed, "paving the way for widespread implementation of digital technology in both research and industry reactors."
“Modern control technology in the nuclear sector will allow for big data applications and increased reliability,” said Clive Townsend, the supervisor for Purdue's reactor, according to Purdue University News. “We’re going from the vacuum tubes and hand-soldered wires of the ’60s to LEDs, ethernet cables and advanced electronics.”
He added, “The fact that the NRC is accepting a digital console for a small research reactor, with parts certified under the KTA standards, signals the regulatory body moving toward approval in a large industry reactor."
Purdue’s nuclear reactor now has digital capabilities that allow for preventive maintenance  a lon...
Purdue’s nuclear reactor now has digital capabilities that allow for preventive maintenance, a longer facility lifespan and big data applications.
Purdue University image/Vincent Walter
The big difference between analog and digital
The upgrade to a fully digital nuclear reactor instrumentation and control system (I&C) has implications for the future of nuclear power in the U.S. Our nuclear power plants generate 20 percent of the nation’s electricity and are the largest clean energy source we have that is not intermittent.
Purdue scientists say that to further mitigate the effects of climate change, "the nuclear energy sector needs to extend the lifetime of existing facilities as well as build new ones."
The NRC likens the I&C systems at nuclear plants to the plant's "nervous systems" - providing critical control and safety information on plant operation. “Digital technologies can be used to combine safety functions together for improved control and increased operational efficiency,” the agency acknowledges.
PUR-1 s video wall
PUR-1's video wall
Purdue University/Vincent Walker
“Digital systems can also improve the self-diagnostics of automatic plant protection systems. Finally, the increased use of digital technology is expected to improve safety. These benefits have been demonstrated in domestic and foreign nuclear facilities, as well as other non-nuclear process industries (e.g. petrochemical).”
Purdue's reactor is not used to produce electrical power, instead, being used for research. And the range of research is amazing - from understanding how heavy metals affect mental health, identifying the origins of a 1,000-year-old artifact or eventually predicting how well pilots will fly new planes.
But perhaps the best news is that now, using Purdue's digital I&C reactor as a cyber-physical test bed, collaborators and corporate partners will be able to evaluate simulations of industry reactors using PUR-1 as a model. Lessons learned from simulations can then be applied to their own reactors.
Duke Energy approved for first digital I&C system
US nuclear plant operators may already consider retrofitting digital I&C systems that have been approved by the NRC, and all new nuclear power plants in the USA are being designed with integrated digital I&C systems, according to NRC information.
Duke Energy's 1970s-era analog, solid-state control for Oconee Nuclear Station’s reactor protection system (RPS) and engineered safeguard protection system (ESPS) was given a license in 2010 to upgrade their RPS and ESPS systems with new digital systems.
Duke Energy s Oconee Nuclear Station  Unit 1
Duke Energy's Oconee Nuclear Station, Unit 1
Several fuel cycle facilities also make use of control systems based on digital design technology both in their normal process control systems and safety control systems., so digital technology in nuclear facilities is not as far-fetched as many people might think.
As a matter of fact, in Japan, the first fully digitalized I&C system was integrated into the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Unit 6 advanced boiling water reactor (ABWR) in 1996, followed by Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Unit 7. France, the U.K., Korea, Sweden, and other countries have also implemented digital I&C systems in their nuclear power plants.
More about Purdue University, Nrc, digital conversion, Nuclear reactor, instrumentation and control system
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