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INL improves control rooms for small nuke plants

A flashing red light is all it takes to catch the eye of an operator in a nuclear power plant control room.

Quickly recognizing that light – and the problem it highlights – is of utmost importance: It could be the difference between business as usual and reactor problems.

And as companies prepare new reactor technology for the rigorous Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s licensing process, Idaho National Laboratory is helping several of them determine the best ways to make control rooms user-friendly.

The lab is helping, in part, with Department of Energy funding – $830,000 during fiscal year 2013, to be exact.

These new reactors – called small modular reactors – are smaller nuclear reactors that are cheaper and easier to build than existing reactors. They could be made in factories and transported to sites where they would be put to use.

During fiscal year 2013, the DOE allocated $67 million nationally for cost-sharing agreements with companies looking to license small modular reactors, INL Director John Grossenbacher said about a month ago.

The DOE funding stems from a call for reactor projects with the potential for commercial operation by 2025. At least 50 percent of the money for the project must be provided by the company chosen, according to the department website.

For fiscal year 2014, the DOE requested $70 million in national cost-sharing agreements, Grossenbacher said.

Lab workers not only assist companies with control room simulation – using its “glasstop simulator, 15 touchscreen panels that can be rearranged into any shape to simulate control rooms” – they also help verify data for small-scale plant models and develop a reactor safety analysis code for the planned plant, said George Griffith, INL lead for Integration of Methods Development and Applications.

INL’s roots in small modular reactor designs run back at least a decade, when companies developed ideas for new types of reactors. One such reactor was the high-temperature, gas-cooled version – cooled by helium gas rather than the water used to cool today’s reactors. The ideas were later applied to a smaller size, Griffith said.

“(This work) has been going on a long time,” Griffith said. “It’s evolving into the (small modular reactor) world.”

Oregon-based NuScale Power was involved even earlier. It began working with INL on the technology in 2000.

NuScale is the only U.S.-based company established solely for the commercialization of small modular reactors. Earlier this year, NuScale announced that the DOE’s desert site was a “quite attractive location” for a small modular reactor plant.

The goal is to have the NuScale plant operating by 2024. To help it toward this goal, the DOE granted NuScale a five-year, $226 million award this month. NuScale will begin the three- to four-year process of environmental reviews for potential sites on the DOE’s Idaho site and evaluate the transmission and electricity needs of the area. A project contract could be signed afterward.

The company works with INL on control room simulations and its reactor safety analysis code, among other things, said Mike McGough, NuScale’s chief commercial officer.

McGough said the company will be working with INL for quite some time as it prepares its plant for potential operation.

“INL is a really important part of what we’re developing, and that’s part of the reason (we want a power plant there),” he said.

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