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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, September 08, 2019 1:00 am

Purdue unveils refitted digital nuclear reactor

DAVE BANGERT | Journal & Courier, Lafayette

WEST LAFAYETTE – When Purdue ceremonially flipped the switch Tuesday on a retooled PUR-1, the university's nuclear reactor retrofitted with first-of-its-kind digital controls, President Mitch Daniels wasn't shy about envisioning the equipment's place in what he called a second nuclear era.

A $1.2 million digital conversion of PUR-1, in the basement Purdue's Electrical Engineering Building, was completed this summer. The project was celebrated Tuesday ahead of a three-day nuclear innovation conference on campus and in front of members of Congress and Annie Caputo, commissioner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The move positions Purdue's nuclear engineering program to test digital capabilities – including the potential for big data, artificial intelligence and analytics – on a small, 10-kilowatt scale for an industry that hasn't moved far from the vacuum tubes and hand-soldered wires of analog equipment.

That, Daniels speculated Tuesday, could have Purdue's reactor, first commissioned in 1962, playing a key role in the industry by being a test bed that gives the industry “greater confidence, safety and reliability.”

“I'm going to be a little more direct about the necessity, in this nation and in this world, of a second nuclear era – of a rejuvenation of what once we thought was a limitless technological opportunity,” Daniels said.

“The work that goes on here, I don't believe is grandiose to imagine, can have implications that are truly global,” Daniels said. “If all that happens, as I'm prepared to imagine it might, then we'll remember today with great fondness and great pride that we were all part of it.”

Purdue began looking into the digital conversion in 2012, when the university received a U.S. Department of Energy grant through the agency's Nuclear Energy University Program.

“The reactor served its purpose really well over its first 50 or so years of its lifetime,” Clive Townsend, supervisor of Purdue's reactor, said as he guided U.S. Rep. Jim Baird and U.S. Sen. Todd Young, among others, on a tour of the upgraded facility.

“But there's always been some noise issues in the instrumentation in gathering data,” Townsend said. “We were looking for, How do we continue to be relevant in a research setting with a smaller facility? With digital instrumentation and control, we can break glass ceilings that other people can't touch at first.”

Townsend said there are 25 research reactors at 24 universities in the United States. Of those, nine are considering similar updates.

The idea is that digital equipment will be less expensive to replace than its analog predecessors as it wears out. Digital equipment also could clear the way for improved preventative maintenance, giving operators better ways to predict when parts should be replaced.

PUR-1's license with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission also is a first in that it relaxes federal rules about the use of only parts certified under domestic standards. PUR-1 will use some digital parts certified under German standards. Townsend said that move, allowing a digital console as a pilot in Purdue's small reactor, could mean similar – and less expensive – moves for larger, commercial reactors. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission called it part of an initiative for a “risk-informed and performance-based” process.

For Purdue, PUR-1 – with its 1-by-1-by-2-foot core and a 6,400-gallon pool that's eight feet across and 17 feet deep – will continue as a lab for medical research, analysis of agricultural practices and more on campus.

New in the PUR-1 facility is a 150-square-foot video wall that shows real-time analysis of the research.

For all the potential the big data flashing on the video wall, part of Purdue's digital retooling is to study potential drawbacks, too, Townsend said.

“There are new vulnerabilities that have to be studied and understood,” Townsend said. “And we want to do that in a 10-kilowatt research reactor, not a 3,000-megawatt industry reactor.”