Training: distance learning
The remote reactor20 April 2012
In an ongoing project, nuclear engineering students from a university in Jordan are linking up to the PULSTAR reactor in the USA to conduct experiments. Now, thanks to the success in Jordan, the International Atomic Energy Agency is looking to expand the project around the world. By Caroline Peachey
Ninety percent of students felt like they were in a real reactor,” said Salaheddin Malkawi, the professor responsible for teaching the internet reactor laboratory (IRL) course at the Jordan University of Science and Technology (JUST). Nineteen students participated in the course in 2011, and it was planned to be run again from February 2012.
As part of the remote reactor project, signals from the PULSTAR research reactor at North Carolina State University (NCSU) in the USA are sent half way around the world to a classroom at JUST. PULSTAR is a 1 MW pool-type research reactor, and it has been operating for almost 40 years. One of PULSTAR’s unique features is that the type of fuel it uses—uranium dioxide enriched to 4% U-235 with zircaloy cladding—is very similar to light water power reactor fuel. The only one of four reactors at the NCSU campus that is still operating, PULSTAR has been a centre of education and training for decades, and expanding this capability is a key mission for the university.
As part of the IRL, students at JUST conduct experiments at PULSTAR by asking operators in the United States to change various settings on the reactor. They can see in real-time how the reactor displays change during the experiments. Students can also interact with operators using video conferencing equipment, getting a sense of what the environment is like in a real reactor control room.
An important factor in this training is that the remote location is only able to receive data and cannot send data or commands to control the reactor, thus ensuring safety.
The project pioneer
Ayman Hawari, director of the nuclear reactor programme at NCSU, launched the internet reactor laboratory concept there in 2004. Since then IRL courses have been offered to two other North American universities: the University of Tennessee and the Georgia Institute of Technology. In addition, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Texas have also run internet reactor programmes.
The collaboration between North Carolina State and JUST began in 2007. Jordan was was looking to initiate its nuclear power programme, including building a research reactor, and wanted some practical laboratory work for its new nuclear engineering course.
“I was part of a delegation that went to Jordan in the spring of 2007,” says Hawari, who was later appointed commissioner for nuclear reactors at the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC).
“During that visit we touched on the possibility of an internet reactor connection. After further discussions with Alex Burkart at the US State Department we decided to propose the concept, and in 2008 we started planning for the project.”
A four-way meeting in the spring of 2009 in Vienna was the kick-start for the project. Hawari, on behalf of NCSU, met with Malkawi from JUST, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the US Department of State to discuss the regulatory needs for expanding the project internationally.
“The project wasn’t technically challenging,” says Ed Bradley, a nuclear engineer within the IAEA’s research reactor section, which assisted with the programme set-up at both universities. “However there were some export controls that had to be addressed and overcome.”
For example, there had to be agreements on which students from what countries would participate in the courses. Other issues that needed to be proposed and reviewed included the content of the curriculum and the process of passing data between PULSTAR and JUST.
It took the best part of a year to satisfy both the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requirements and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) export controls, says Hawari, adding that permission to connect to Jordan was granted in 2010.
The US Department of State subsequently provided some funding for the project to the IAEA, and this was used to purchase the equipment required by JUST, and to pay NCSU’s costs.
The equipment needed at the remote site (JUST) was simply two flat-screen TVs, a video conferencing system and a PC. A broadband connection was also needed for the link-up, as well as some specialist software so that JUST could view the control room indicators in real-time.
The first screen at the remote site is used for video conferencing; students at JUST can see inside the reactor control room and communicate with the operators. They are also able to manipulate the camera, to zoom in and focus on one piece of instrumentation, for example. A second screen is used as a virtual console, showing live data taken from reactor instrumentation at PULSTAR. This data is taken from the control room indicators (for example, control rod positions, temperature and power readouts) using data acquisition cards, then converted into a digital format and then transmitted to JUST via the internet. Students are able to download the data from the console to their computers.
The set-up at the research reactor site is also simple. The entire system (AV equipment, cameras and data acquisition cards) took a matter of days to set up at PULSTAR, says Hawari.
The IRL in Jordan was inaugurated in the fall semester of 2010 and experiments began at the same time. Students at JUST conducted five experiments using the IRL in its first semester on offer, says professor Malkawi. Typical experiments include approach to criticality, flux mapping, and estimation of the power coefficient of reactivity.
“The purpose of the lab is to help students connect the theoretical reactor physics they have studied with the practical implementation,” said Hawari.
The duration of the experiments ranged from 90 minutes to around three hours. Due to the time difference (seven hours) the IRLs were scheduled for mid-afternoon in Jordan, or early morning in the USA.
Time difference could potentially be one obstacle for expanding this collaboration internationally, Malkawi said. Language could also be a barrier, although neither was an issue in the Jordanian project.
The IRL has a number of benefits for both research reactors themselves and educational institutes.
Professor Malkawi from JUST strongly recommends the set-up for nuclear engineering programmes. First, the teaching is more interactive than using other teaching aids such as simulators or videos. Students can ask questions, design their own experiments and ask for readings to be repeated. Also, students get to witness practical changes to the set-up of the reactor, says Malkawi.
“The fact of the matter is that the remote and the on-campus students are getting a similar experience. Both are receiving data, interacting with the operators and making decisions on the next step of an experiment,” Hawari adds.
Second, the IRL has the added advantage that it can be used for a larger class-size than a real research reactor. “A research reactor control room is very small so only four to five students can be present at one time. We are able to conduct the internet reactor labs in a lecture hall with class sizes up to 20,” Malkawi says.
Finally, the programme can be valuable for newcomer nuclear countries like Jordan. The programme enables institutes to connect to a reactor that is well-established with experienced staff and planned experiments.
Jordan is currently building its own research reactor at JUST, which is scheduled to start up in 2015. Until then (and potentially beyond that point), JUST has the option of using the IRL to give its students practical experience.
Access to research reactors is likely to become more restricted in future. The IAEA is projecting that over the next few decades as many as half of the world’s research reactors will shut down as they advance in age, says Ali Carrigan, of the IAEA’s research reactor section. In turn many of the remaining research reactors are likely to become more specialized, and may not have the capability or time for education and training. If some research reactors deploy this technology, however, they could help a number of institutes with nuclear engineering courses.
Hawari says: “This is a great opportunity for facilities with research reactors to provide the human resources and training needs to support the growing interest in nuclear technology.
“At the same time it could become a revenue generator,” he adds. Universities or other organizations typically pay for the internet reactor lab time; although Hawari says this is not a huge earner for PULSTAR, it may be for other facilities.
Carrigan echoes this thought. “There is a great opportunity for research reactors that are under-utilized to position themselves as leaders in teaching and training,” she says. According to the IAEA’s research reactor database, 123 reactors in 39 countries operate for less than four effective weeks a year (that is, 4x7x24 hours). Many of these facilities could potentially offer their services for education and training.
“On the back of the success in Jordan we have decided to implement this programme in as many regions as we can,” says Carrigan.
The next step is to set up a regional pilot programme in Latin America where an Argentine research reactor has already stepped up to host the project. Several countries in that region have nuclear engineering programmes but no access to research reactors, which makes it a good place to pilot the project on a wider scale, Carrigan adds. Uruguay and Ecuador are among countries that have expressed interest in the pilot. The Latin American project is still in the early stages and a meeting of interested parties is planned for the near future. Hawari is also preparing to show an Argentine delegation around his NCSU internet reactor lab in April. The main work for the Latin American project involves ironing out the curriculum and deciding where the IRL could be used to best advantage within already-established university courses, says Carrigan. It is hoped that the project will be up and running by the beginning of the 2013 academic year.
So how far could the internet reactor lab spread?
“If this idea can be exposed enough I really believe that many other reactors would take advantage and it could launch all across the globe,” says Hawari.
Technically it is easy for the data feed from a reactor to go to multiple sites at a time. But the human logistics would become more complicated. Still, in five years it is perfectly feasible that three or four reactors in a region could be sending out signals to a dozen remote sites, says Carrigan, whose ultimate goal would be to have the IRL as a module embedded in university courses.
The IAEA encourages institutes or universities in Latin America or elsewhere get in contact for further information on the remote reactor project. Funding is available from the IAEA for some of the initial set-up costs, as well as guidance about how to integrate IRLs into nuclear science and engineering coursework.
This article was published in the March 2012 issue of Nuclear Engineering International magazine.