Prairie Island: a virtual pioneer

11 July 2018

Xcel Energy is developing new virtual training tools as part of a dose reduction initiative at its Prairie Island nuclear plant. NEI learns more.

IN FEBRUARY OF 2018, XCEL Energy’s nuclear business unit started using virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) as a training tool and as part of a highly effective dose reduction initiative.

VR creates a totally immersive simulation and AR overlays digital information onto the physical environment. The VR simulations are constructed using point clouds generated from colour sensitive laser scans and the AR environment is being constructed using an overlay of internet of things (IoT) data and electronic work instructions. These technologies have already begun to reduce training cost and worker exposure associated with dry cask fuel storage campaign at Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant, a two-unit, 550MW pressurised water reactor plant in Red Wing, Minnesota. The ultimate goal is to leverage these technologies to completely transform how training and work is performed throughout the Xcel Energy fleet.

“Prairie Island is driving the development of the technology and associated processes for Xcel Energy at large,” says Brad Boyer, radiation protection manager at the plant. “Once they are mature, they will be deployed outside of the nuclear business unit into the wider Xcel fleet.”

As the speed of technology advances and VR/AR costs continue to drop, learning is changing into an experiential process. Immersive learning environments and gamification are expected to reduce training times by 10-15%, with an overall cost savings of 40%. Previous tools used web-based applications to create virtual plant tours with links to various information sources (eg equipment sensors, radiological surveys, live video feeds, etc.). Xcel Energy’s work will transform this into true VR/AR to realise an immersive learning and work environment.

Prairie Island, which has already been recognised for its use of cadmium zinc telluride (CZT) monitoring as a dose reduction initiative, says VR/AR can be integrated with the CZT spectroscopic imaging detector. This instrument takes a visual image and overlays it with a radionuclide specific heat map (pictured far right). This information can be loaded into either the VR/AR environment to produce a visual means of communicating radiation fields and can be leveraged for ALARA planning, pre-job briefings, mockups, and in the field.

VR-based training for fire brigades has been an emerging technique for the non-nuclear industry and allows the effects of toxic gasses, heat, and other visible factors to be simulated without putting the trainee into physical danger. These techniques will be used to teach nuclear fire brigade personnel the proper protocols for various station conditions. The methods can also be used to train instrumentation and control technicians by guiding them through procedures like relay replacement and testing. Virtualising procedures, manuals and information sheets, will improve trainees’ retention and provide immediate feedback on correct work techniques.

Paperless work orders and the use of tablet computers in the field is the beginning of a mobile work management revolution. The end state is AR implementation, where personnel have safety glasses that can guide them through step-by-step diagnostics or cross reference a component that is about to be operated against the current procedural step and provide immediate independent verification. However, VR/AR technologies present several challenges unique to the nuclear industry, including cyber security, safeguards information and regulatory compliance. The recent revelations of state sponsored hacking of nuclear systems places increased scrutiny on these issues and the development of this technology will require ‘cradle to grave’ support from security experts. AR implementation requires precise overlay integration, otherwise it can become a cause of error and introduce a hazard into the work environment. There is a generational discrepancy in embracing VR and AR technologies with line employees. Older employees are more apt to dismiss the technology as a gimmick. Younger employees are more willing to embrace it, and point out more subtle problems. High quality VR/AR tools have to be intuitive and bug free. Careful management of these risks will ensure that the enormous benefits of an immersive learning and work environment are realised.

Xcel Energy’s work in VR/AR has demonstrated that these technologies are versatile and that their use can produce an immediate return on investment. Now the utility plans VR integration of touch sensitive gloves, and a move to AR-supported field work with a virtual field presence for subject matter experts.

VR/AR is providing a more efficient work environment, reducing training time, improving knowledge retention, decreasing human performance errors and leading to significant dose reduction at Prairie Island.  

Prairie Island A VR/AR workshop underway at Prairie Island
Prairie Island The two-unit Prairie Island nuclear plant in Minnesota, USA
Prairie Island Workers at Prairie Island are utilising VR and AR as a dose reduction tool
Prairie Island Virtual reality complements CZT monitoring, which has been used at Prairie Island since 2013

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