UK dockyard turns to VR to apply modular approach to nuclear

A small modular reactor (SMR) project at the Liverpool dockyards is leaning on virtual reality to aid in planning and training, project leaders say.

Modelling projects in three dimensions for virtual testing and investigation has been a staple in engineering for decades, noticeably in aerospace and the automotive industry, and as civil nuclear projects enter their own new dawn of advanced generators, the technique has proved invaluable for nuclear engineers.

Project FAITH (Fuel Assemblies Incorporating Thermal Hydraulics) is a two-year research and development project funded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) that aims to build experimental rigs for thermal hydraulics tests as a model for implementing the shipyard’s modular construction techniques for the nuclear industry. 

The project is in collaboration with GE Hitachi and National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL). 

“This project will show innovation as it will challenge the norms within the nuclear sector to create a rig which can prove the benefit of cross-industry modular approaches in time, budget and health and safety,” the BEIS says. 

As part of the Nuclear Sector Deal, a £40-million ($53.6 million) push by the UK government to kick start new nuclear in the country, the BEIS granted the project £5.1 million. 

Developing and testing the rig

At the site, NNL is developing a boiling water reactor rig and is testing that for potential pressure loss and induced vibrations on the fuel assembly and, eventually, aims to replicate that rig with sodium instead of water, Account Director of Newbuild and Advanced Nuclear Technology (SMR and AMR) at NNL Mike Drury explains. 

“Project FAITH is to design and build this water rig, design and develop the simulation model, build the model to replicate the rig then, using the rig, run operational tests that validate the model. Following this, design the sodium rig, build it and validate if the models for the larger water rig, combined with modelling, can be used as an analogous for the sodium development” Drury says. 

The virtual reality modelling, which is used to supplement both Hazzard and Operability (HAZOP) and the design review processes, is replacing two dimensional drawings and charts in an industry that is playing catch up with 2020’s engineering techniques. 

“Previously in HAZOPs, you’d use techniques such as fishbone diagrams to look at the risks in hazard analysis, identify those as you go through each level of detail on the HAZOP. Here we’re starting to do that but with a VR model in front of people so they can physically see; what if we move in that direction, what about that thing over there, is that going to influence anything. They can look at things in a totally different way,” says Drury.

The technique is proving useful for the Cammell Laird team, especially when working through the HAZOP process at the preliminary stages rather than waiting until after it is built, says Cammell Laird Project Manager Jaime Willgress. 

The University of Liverpool’s Virtual Engineering Centre (VEC) “turns a 2D drawing in to a VR model where, using a headset, you can go in to a collaborative workspace and identify physical hazards where you could trip, you could fall, you could bang your head, where there’s not enough space to use instruments, but also see if a monitor is too high,” says Willgress. 

Training and safety support

Over the last few years, the VEC have been developing virtual and augmented reality systems to support training and improve safety within the nuclear sector. A bespoke system, designed by the VEC, has already won a highly commended at the NDA Safety and Technology Innovation awards 2019 for its work at Sellafield

The center developed a mixed-reality model of a nuclear plant crane used to remove nuclear waste in Sellafield which was built by using an exact replica of the crane’s operator chair, control joystick and spatial working environment together with selected digital tools.

The success of the simulator allowed Sellafield’s silo waste retrieval team to re-purpose the original training rig as a second retrieval system, saving some £20 million on the cost of future waste retrievals. 

The center is supporting Cammell Laird’s project of transferring its world-class experience of modular shipbuilding to the nuclear energy sector and is seeing huge benefits from being able to virtually model relatively complex systems before anyone goes near any physical models and enabling continuity of the design process through virtual collaboration tools. 

“We took CAD data and manipulated it using a gaming engine called Unity and that enables you to have an immersive experience to support assessment of designs and processes. If you have a headset, you can walk in and there’s some interaction; you can open doors, you can look at things, you can examine the effects of tolerancing, you can look at assembly sequence, for instance if you’ve got enclosed pipes,” says VEC Executive Director Andy Levers. 

“It gives you much more than just a 3D model, you’ve got an ability to react with it and multiple people can be interacting with it in the same space.”

Typically, industries create virtual models for single type problems, such as seismic evaluation or reactor physics, or hydraulics, but by bringing together the various single-problem models, Drury says they are working to create a true digital twin of the reactor. 

“If you want to look at it from an operations point of view, or a safety point of view, an engineering point of view or a logistics of delivery point of view, you can look at all of it, and that’s what we’re trying to achieve,” he says.

“This is about systems thinking. Using models to help holistically review engineering development in the nuclear industry, looking at better ways of modularisation, better ways of operation, quicker, faster, simpler ways to help predict change, to model it, replicate it. This was all about, how do we change the current environment we are working in from a modelling perspective?” says Drury.

  By Paul Day