Scientists at Purdue University in the United States say they’ve installed the first all-digital nuclear reactor system in the country – a big upgrade for a research reactor first built in 1962, and a step forward for all nuclear plants that will need to make the shift from traditional analog to digital control.
“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. “We’re going from the vacuum tubes and hand-soldered wires of the ’60s, to LEDs, ethernet cables and advanced electronics.”
Purdue said it began the digital conversion process in 2012, and the university built the digital system alongside private-sector partners Mirion Technologies and the Curtiss-Wright Corp.
University reactors like Purdue’s aren’t used for powering energy grids at industry scale, but they do provide a platform for research. “Examples that might surprise you include 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,” the university said in a statement.
That research is more valuable when it’s shared with other institutions, and the new Purdue University Reactor Number One (PUR-1) makes it possible to share nuclear-powered knowledge and energy advances, and collaborate with academic and corporate partners anywhere in the world.
“We can send signals to areas, such as schools in developing countries, that do not have the luxury of their own nuclear reactor facility and the associated educational infrastructure,” said Seungjin Kim, head of the School of Nuclear Engineering at Purdue. “As long as they have internet and this partnership with Purdue, they can see and study how the reactor works.”
That will contribute to the “next chapter” of nuclear energy, safety and security.
What’s not theoretical, though, is the need to boost nuclear capacity in the United States. The nation’s existing nuclear plants generate 20 percent of U.S. electricity and nuclear is the largest clean-energy source. Yet the sector needs to extend the lifespan of its existing nuclear power facilities as well as build new ones in order to offset climate change impacts, and that means making the switch to digital.
Going digital means that much more data can be processed and analyzed, opening the door to capabilities that haven’t been as possible yet in the nuclear sector, Purdue said. “Digital technology also allows reactor facilities to identify performance interruptions which may occur before the scheduled maintenance time, making them safer and extending their lifetime,” the scientists add. ”If parts needed to be replaced, digital ones are far less expensive and more commercially available than analog parts.”
For PUR-1, some of those parts were certified under the German Nuclear Safety Standards Commission (KTA), rather than under U.S. standards that were historically required by its Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That’s a sign that international collaboration may be more likely moving forward, and that it may move beyond the academic community.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the newly licensed PUR-1 will kick off a three-day summit, “Atoms for Humanity,” on Sept. 3 at Purdue University.