If you’ve ever filled out taxes by hand, you have something in common with a nuclear power plant control room operator. In both cases, people reference documents, perform tests to see if a situation applies and wade through a lot of information that just isn’t pertinent.
To be sure, there are differences between the two – one being tax preparation software. These programs have completely changed how Americans file their yearly taxes. Rather than rely on static paper forms and complex instructions, software now automatically guides people through the filing maze. That’s something control room operators don’t have – yet.
That situation could change with a new tool being developed by Idaho National Laboratory (INL) researchers. The new software is a product of expertise the team also used to develop a dynamic instruction platform for fieldworkers, which was released commercially in the spring of 2020. When deployed, the control room tool could ease the burden on operators, working much like tax software does.
“You answer a few questions at the beginning and it automatically takes you down the right path so that you can do the right task or follow the right instructions,” said Katya Le Blanc, a human factors scientist at INL who’s been working on the project.
The U.S. Department of Energy recently awarded a grant to INL and GSE Systems of Sykesville, Maryland, to collaborate on further development and refinement of the decision support tool.
“We want to help the advanced nuclear reactors and the oil and gas industry in their quest to improve human performance and the ease of operating their plants,” said Johanna Oxstrand, an INL human factors scientist and principal investigator on the project.
She added that the tool will streamline operations, improve efficiency, and reduce the risk of error. These benefits will translate into lower costs and a boost to the bottom line for plants. For consumers, more efficient electricity generation could mean lower fees or prices that rise less than they would otherwise.
“This synergetic collaboration is helping to create a radically new operating paradigm,” said Bahram Meyssami, GSE’s chief technology officer, in a release announcing the grant.
INL’s Oxstrand noted that the nuclear industry adheres to stringent requirements and follows approved procedures, manuals and instructions. The oil and gas industry is moving in that direction and so a solution could work in both settings. Software could help operators in both types of plants decide what tasks need to be done and could also help improve situational awareness, according to Oxstrand.
Picking your way through a maze
As is the case in other complex settings, nuclear plant operators have checklists, documents and detailed step-by-step instructions. But the instructions may include directions to branch off to different points, with the next destination determined by the circumstances. When doing taxes, a similar situation arises when a calculation is done. A taxpayer may then use that result to determine what to do next.
In the case of a nuclear plant, operators may have to jump forward or back, past pages and pages. Doing that correctly can be difficult in the best of times. During trying or stressful times, it gets even harder to navigate the maze of documentation.
Research to devise a solution to this problem began almost 10 years ago as a project under the Energy Department’s Light Water Reactor Sustainability Program, Oxstrand said. Initially, the effort concentrated on field procedures, the instructions and information used when maintaining and adjusting valves, pumps and other equipment that supports what goes on in a power plant. Now the tools are being adapted for the main control room.
As part of this research and development, Oxstrand and Le Blanc investigated how control room operators actually do their jobs by watching them and asking them questions about their work. Some of this activity was documented in the written policies and procedures, but some was not.
“There are a lot of things that are not explicitly written down on paper but are in the operator’s training or in how operators work,” Le Blanc said.
As the software was under development, the researchers timed how long it took to do something the traditional way and how long it took using an electronic tool. They also interviewed operators on how using the software compared to paper-based or other existing methods.
Part of the innovation, Le Blanc pointed out, was in structuring the information in a way that resulted in a usable product. Simply translating what was on a page into an electronic format would have resulted in replicating all the challenges of paper. It would be the equivalent of a tax program that simply consisted of a string of digital documents and forms.
The road ahead
Offering more than a simple paper replacement required dynamic and not static content, the scientists realized early in the research and development process. Using content that changed as needed allowed them to implement if-then branching, which is something that can be found in tax forms.
For example, it might be that if condition A is met, then power plant operators should branch to X. Alternatively, if the situation is in condition B, then operators should go to Y. The software developed at INL knows where operators are in terms of the documented procedure. The software then presents information flexibly based on the context. By doing so, the program reduces the workload on operators. Since the operators have less to remember, they can better concentrate on the task at hand.
Developing the control room version of the software will be a two-year effort. If all goes as planned, the project will conclude with a demonstration offering in fall 2021.
The initial deployment may well be in the oil and gas industry, as that has fewer barriers to and restrictions on deployment of new technology, Le Blanc said. For instance, any major change in how nuclear power plant control room operations are done will have to be approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). That will take time and may need a commercial partner willing to champion the software tool.
Success in the oil and gas industry, which should be easier and quicker to demonstrate, could lead to a rollout of the solution in the nuclear industry. The result could well be an improvement in efficiency due to enhanced worker productivity.
In discussing this possibility, Oxstrand said, “The system will help operators focus on what has to be done.”
That benefit and the resulting cost advantage is important, according to Ross Snuggerud, chief of engineering for operations at NuScale Power. The Portland, Oregon-based company is working on a power plant concept with small modular nuclear reactors. These reactors are deployed in a cluster, with the number set to meet the desired baseload need. There may be as many as 12 reactor modules managed by a single control room, Snuggerud noted.
He said computers are good at some things, like patiently keeping track of a complex procedure. So, helping software support operators through procedures can maximize human strengths and improve overall results, thereby minimizing costs.
“Better situational awareness along with making better and more accurate decisions would make operators more efficient,” Snuggerud said.