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The Future Of Nuclear Plants Is Digital

Vincent Walter
Purdue University
PUR-1 Operators: Analog controls (left) and upgraded digital instrumentation and control system (right).

Purdue University has installed the first all-digital nuclear reactor system in the United States. Scientists say the technology will allow for more data analysis which will make plants safer.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has licensed Purdue's reactor Number One (PUR-1) as the first entirely digital nuclear instrumentation and control system in the country. Purdue's plant used to have analog controls just like others built in the '60s, '70s and '80s.

"We're going from the vacuum tubes and hand-soldered wires of the '60s, to LEDs, ethernet cables and advanced electronics," says Clive Townsend, the supervisor for Purdue's reactor.

Credit Purdue University
Purdue University

Why haven't others made this conversion? Townsend says the technology is changing so much that regulators can't keep up and it's expensive to retrofit existing plants with digital controls.

"Nuclear power plants at the industry scale are very capital intensive. So we're talking about $10 billion, maybe on the low end of an installation of a nuclear reactor. Once they're licensed they have extensive documentation and making changes to that can be really, really challenging."

Townsend expects digital to be included in new plants, especially smaller ones like NuScale.

Purdue is one of the premier nuclear test beds. With digital controls Townsend says, "we can understand how a change on one line of code propagates into the water temperature and physical characteristics." Also, the data can be accessed remotely allowing students and others to learn from it.

A ribbon-cutting for Purdue's digital reactor is set for Sept. 3.

With more than 30 years of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market, Ann Thompson brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting. She has reported for WKRC, WCKY, WHIO-TV, Metro Networks and CBS/ABC Radio. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2019 and 2011 A-P named her “Best Reporter” for large market radio in Ohio. She has won awards from the Association of Women in Communications and the Alliance for Women in Media. Ann reports regularly on science and technology in Focus on Technology.