Up until recently, all of the nuclear plants in America were running on analog technology that is decades old. However, engineers and scientists have managed to transition the Purdue University Reactor Number One (PUR-1) to all-digital. They are hopeful that this feat will help them to move nuclear technology forward.
Clive Townsend, the supervisor for PUR-1, said in a press conference, ‘As the United States and the world continue to implement digital technology, that introduces both strengths and vulnerabilities that need to be explored and understood because our economy relies on the resiliency of these systems.’ Digital systems provide a myriad of benefits over the analog systems. They provide greater flexibility and the capability of handling complex algorithms, thus enabling exponential growth. In fact, digital systems are even capable of analyzing themselves for the sake of maintenance.
Digital systems can pave the way for new possibilities when it comes to the nuclear industry in artificial intelligence. This is something that is impossible to do with the analog systems. It is also cheaper to find digital replacements for parts that have to be replaced as opposed to the analog ones. Regardless of the many benefits that they offer, the digital systems are not perfect. In fact, they also run the risk of crashes – software and hardware. That is why the PUR-1 that has been licensed by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) will be serving as the first cyber-nuclear testbed of the country.
PUR-1 is an academic plant that has been utilized in the past for research purposes and for powering other projects at Purdue. It measures in at 1 foot wide by 1 foot long by 2 feet tall and is located at the bottom of a pool that is about 8 feet in diameter. Legally speaking, it is only allowed to create enough energy to power a toaster or a hairdryer. PUR-1 was the second nuclear power plant to be built in Indiana back in 1961. It was also the first one ever to achieve criticality. As of now, PUR-1 is the only nuclear plant in the state.
Townsend says, ‘We are inviting and forming partnerships—that could be private, other universities, or national labs—to explore how we can leverage the strengths of digital systems in order to ensure reliability. We see renewed interest by members of the public and future students, as well as collaborations in private and public sectors, to use this small reactor for a variety of purposes, including detector characterization and new outreach capabilities across both the US and the world. It’s really breathed new life, as well as new research capabilities.’
Townsend further adds, ‘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. Seungjin Kim is the head of the Purdue’s School of Nuclear Engineering, and said, ‘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. As long as they have internet and this partnership with Purdue, they can see and study how the reactor works.’